Dual power, base building, and serving the people in the U.S. Revolutionary Movement

Feb 4, 2020

The North Front Street Community Block Party, organized by the Philadelphia Liberation Center.

The current period is the most favorable for socialists in the United States in decades. Against the backdrop of the Great Recession, waves of activity around the Occupy Movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Bernie Sanders campaign have produced a profound radicalization in political attitudes across society. Socialism is viewed favorably by close to half of the population and a substantial section of young people are sympathetic towards communism and Marxism.

The key challenge facing revolutionaries in this moment is how to convert this explosion in pro-socialist consciousness into an organized force in society. While this includes the rapidly-expanding ranks of new cadre who are dedicating their lives to the cause of socialist revolution, a real organized force in society will draw its strength from the tens of millions of people who suffer the profound injustices of the capitalist system and are searching for an alternative. This base, or potential base, for the socialist movement can be found primarily amongst the 140 million poor people in this country.

As communists and other radicals across the country grapple with this question, the concept of dual power has rightfully become a topic of considerable interest and debate. However, the working definition of dual power used by organizations and individuals is often so broad and general that it renders the term practically useless. As such, it is important to disentangle the concepts and history bound up in these discussions in order to think clearly about the way forward for those fighting for revolutionary change.

Problems in the contemporary debate over dual power in the United States

The bulk of the current debate over the role of dual power in a strategy for revolution in the United States rests on a relatively recent redefinition and decontextualization of the concept, in which it is effectively stripped of its meaning by becoming so broad that it could refer to almost anything. This, in turn, results in the misunderstanding and misapplication of tactics related to directly meeting the needs of the working class, building a base of support, and ultimately making a revolution.

The Black Rose Anarchist Federation is among the more prominent organizations popularizing this new understanding of dual power. This reformulation of the concept has its roots in anarchist writings on the subject that emerged in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the anti-globalization movement. As an expression of its current position, this organization republished an article last year called “Active Revolution”, originally written in a 2002 issue of the publication The Northeastern Anarchist. It defines dual power this way:

Dual power theorizes a distinct and oppositional relationship between the forces of the state/capitalism and the revolutionary forces of oppressed people. The two can never be peacefully reconciled.

With the theory of dual power is a dual strategy of public resistance to oppression (counter-power) and building cooperative alternatives (counter-institutions). Public resistance to oppression encompasses all of the direct action and protest movements that fight authoritarianism, capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the other institutionalized oppressions. Building cooperative alternatives recreates the social and economic relationships of society to replace competitive with cooperative structures.

It’s hard to imagine what doesn’t fall under such a broad definition. Instead of institutions like Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly or the Soviets of the Russian Revolution that have the capacity to exercise state power — to enforce the rule of either workers and the oppressed or the capitalist class — the “power” in dual power simply refers to the fact that there are two camps in society locked in conflict with one another. That the interests of the exploited and oppressed are opposite and irreconcilable with the interests of the exploiters and oppressors is no revelation. This is simply a restating of the materialist conception of history. That revolutionaries should participate in politics — the struggle for power in society — is a concept so elementary that it has little utility for those looking for a concrete strategy to pursue.

The actions prescribed by this particular approach to dual power are likewise impossibly broad. Two sets of activities are proposed: creating vehicles to wage direct struggle against the ruling class, and carrying out direct services to meet the material needs of working people.

The first type of activity is referred to by Black Rose Anarchist Federation as action that “encompasses all of the direct action and protest movements that fight authoritarianism, capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the other institutionalized oppressions.” This could be a group of employees organizing a union at their workplace or going on strike. This could mean a community campaign to hold a police officer guilty of brutality to legal account. It could also refer to residents in an apartment building holding a rent strike, students marching to demand free higher education, or activists holding a sit-in to demand action on climate change.

Of course revolutionaries should organize, but the question of strategy is to determine which of these struggles and tactics (and so many others) have particular social significance, under what circumstances they arise and gain that significance, and for which layers of the population.  

The other side of the “dual power” approach encompasses essentially all other types of activities that could possibly be organized by revolutionaries, from community gardens and food drives to crowd-funding campaigns. 

Beyond the extreme generality of the concept, there is an additional problem embedded in the popular understanding of the purpose of activities meant to “recreate the social and economic relationships of society to replace competitive with cooperative structures.” 

This recreates many of the errors that communists have long pointed out regarding the creation of worker cooperatives as a means of “overcoming” capitalism. No enterprise, cooperative, or capitalist, produces all of the raw materials, machinery, software, means of transportation, and other inputs necessary for its own functioning. These can only be acquired through commerce with other enterprises, which will rightfully understand efforts to overthrow capitalism as a threat to their own existence. Beyond the barriers of entry costs, scale, and price competition in capitalism, if a cooperative is somehow able to carve out a spot for itself in the broader capitalist supply chain, wouldn’t the capitalist state illegalize their activities if they ever truly presented a threat to the rule of the capitalist class? 

In addition, there is nothing inherently radicalizing about having one’s needs met. There is a huge complex of non-profit organizations funded by ruling class foundation money–many of which mask themselves with radical-sounding language–that have been established in recent decades that meet the needs of working people but in a political sense serve as a means to inhibit the development of revolutionary consciousness. Promoting direct service activities as a form of dual power undercuts the core of the revolutionary socialist program: to have a society where people’s needs are met we need to expropriate the capitalist class, smash their state, and establish a workers’ state in its place.

Dual power in the history of socialist revolutions

To think clearly about dual power, we have to put the concept in its historical and political contexts.

Previous generations of revolutionaries have understood dual power as a highly unstable situation in society that lasts usually for a temporary historical moment. The revolution – the decisive seizure of state power by the working class and oppressed – resolves the question of dual power by shattering the authority of the old power and establishing the legitimacy of the new power. Alternatively, a counterrevolution restores the old power in a new form.

This concept originates in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In February, the year’s first revolution took place, which overthrew the absolutist monarchy. In its place, a provisional government was set up that included representatives of the Russian capitalist class as well as the more moderate elements of the country’s socialist movement. But this was not the only source of authority in society. Parallel to the provisional government, institutions called Soviets emerged representing the interests of the country’s workers, peasants, and rank-and-file soldiers. 

Lenin labeled this peculiar situation “dual power,” and elaborated on it in the pamphlet “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution,” written in the period after the February Revolution but before the socialist revolution in October:

The main feature of our revolution, a feature that most imperatively demands thoughtful consideration, is the dual power which arose in the very first days after the triumph of the revolution. 

This dual power is evident in the existence of two governments: one is the main, the real, the actual government of the bourgeoisie, the “Provisional Government” of Lvov [the first Prime Minister of the provisional government] and Co., which holds in its hands all the organs of power; the other is a supplementary and parallel government, a “controlling” government in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which holds no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, on the armed workers and soldiers …

This remarkable feature, unparalleled in history in such a form, has led to the interlocking of two dictatorships: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (for the government of Lvov and Co. is a dictatorship, i.e., a power based not on the law, not on the previously expressed will of the people, but on seizure by force, accomplished by a definite class, namely, the bourgeoisie) and the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry (the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies).

There is not the slightest doubt that such an “interlocking” cannot last long. Two powers cannot exist in a state. One of them is bound to pass away; and the entire Russian bourgeoisie is already trying its hardest everywhere and in every way to keep out and weaken the Soviets, to reduce them to nought, and to establish the undivided power of the bourgeoisie.

The dual power merely expresses a transitional phase in the revolution’s development, when it has gone farther than the ordinary bourgeois-democratic revolution, but has not yet reached a “pure” dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. (emphases in original)

A contemporary example of dual power can be found in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. Parallel to the institutions of the bourgeois state — the presidency, the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, etc. — inherited by the revolutionaries after Hugo Chavez’s 1998 election victory, there exists a “communal state” in formation. The basic units of the communal state are the communal councils, which were first formally created in 2006. Steve Ellner, a professor at Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, explained in a 2009 article:

The community councils are horizontally structured, with all of their leaders (called voceros, or “spokespeople”) working free of charge and considered of equal rank. Spokespeople can belong to no more than one of their council’s various commissions, which include a communal bank, which handles grant money; a ‘social controllership,’ which monitors spending; and an ‘employment commission,’ which enlists qualified community members for remunerative jobs and attempts to ensure that they receive preferential hiring. All decisions, including the selection of spokespeople, are ratified in an ‘assembly of citizens,’ which represents the community council’s ‘maximum instance of decision making.’

The communal councils are grouped together into federations called socialist communes, which carry out larger-scale projects and develop socially-owned productive industries called “communal enterprises.” The framework for the communes is laid out in the 2010 Organic Law of Communes. Augusto Montiel, then a member of the National Assembly who now serves as Venezuela’s ambassador to India, described the goal of the law at the time of its passage: “To put an end to the bourgeois state that we still have, we need to create conditions for the development of a community-based, communal, democratic, protagonistic and revolutionary state. That is, to create a state that doesn’t allow power to be concentrated in the hands of a few privileged people.”

While dual power today in Venezuela and in Russia in 1917 have their own unique characteristics because of the particular historical circumstances they arose out of, there are fundamental common features. Both involve the creation of grassroots decision-making institutions based on the direct participation of the organized working class, which is capable of carrying out the functions of the state. Both emerged as the result of revolutionary situations that radically shifted power in society. As such, in both cases, dual power is highly volatile and involves constant clashes between the competing sources of authority. In Venezuela, this instability reached new heights in 2019 when the counter-revolutionary National Assembly backed Juan Guaidó’s coup against President Nicolás Maduro, who had convened the National Constituent Assembly as the highest expression of revolutionary authority. 

Related questions on base building

Direct services activities–what proponents of the new conceptualization of dual power refer to as “counter-institutions”–do indeed have a great deal of utility. However, the provision of direct service must be understood as a tactic, rather than a strategy in and of itself. 

Alongside the discussion in the socialist movement on the meaning and application of dual power, a related debate has emerged over base building. 

For revolutionaries, base building refers to long-term efforts to create a durable reserve of support within a particular section of the working class. This is usually constructed on the basis of a workplace or a neighborhood. The provision of services is an important element of base building work. But this needs to be done in a way that does not promote the view that the creation of a vast network of worker-owned cooperatives or activist-administered social programs is a path to power. Properly applied, “serve the people” programs are primarily an outreach tactic with the goal of identifying sites of potential class struggle, rather than a manifestation of dual power.

To consider some practical examples, the Philadelphia branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation is involved in a number of base building activities that utilize direct service events along these lines. In May, we organized a block party through our Kensington-based community center called the Philadelphia Liberation Center. At the block party, we distributed bags of household essentials and childcare goods marked with our Party logo, and also organized music, childrens’ activities, and a cookout to give neighbors a chance to socialize. Events geared towards meeting residents’ cultural and recreational needs can be just as effective as those aimed at meeting material needs, and has the added benefit of attracting in greater numbers the layers of the neighborhood with a baseline level of stability conducive to future organizing efforts.

Kensington is being intensely targeted by the big banks and real estate firms for gentrification. We made the right to housing the political theme of the block party, produced a special pamphlet for it, and promoted the event with the framing “strong communities can resist gentrification.” In the course of our outreach for the block party, we met a long-time, well-respected resident of the neighborhood who was fighting the construction of a massive, luxury apartment complex on the small residential street where she lived. She invited us to attend an upcoming hearing on the construction, and from there to join the fight on an ongoing basis. The practical commitment to the well-being of people in the neighborhood demonstrated by the PSL’s cadre earned the trust of the people, who invited us to intervene in this local issue. From there, we were able to help launch the Norris Square Community Action Network, which carried out a well-attended picket of the construction site and is also moving forward with other projects in the neighborhood.

Another practical example involves our work with a community of recently-arrived immigrants from Central America. Through a pre-existing contact, we were able to partner with a congregation to set up an after-school program called Escuelita Óscar Romero. This project provides both childcare and educational services to families struggling to survive under the weight of the U.S. government’s war on immigrants. 

Some time after Escuelita Óscar Romero was launched, the father of one of the participants was arrested by ICE and held for deportation. Because we had already developed a foundation of trust between ourselves and the people, we were able to immediately organize a well-attended meeting that resolved to form an anti-ICE emergency response network to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. We have subsequently held a number of door-knocking sessions along with members of the community to develop a contact list of people who are alerted when ICE is spotted in or around the neighborhood. 

To build a base, communist cadre first need to insert themselves into the designated workplace or geographic location. Because this is a long-term effort, the reputation of the revolutionaries is of paramount importance. Working people will not follow any group into a struggle in sufficient numbers unless there is pre-existing trust and confidence that is established, and this is impossible to do through rhetoric alone. Direct service activities demonstrate through practical deeds that communists are upstanding members of the community who care deeply for the well-being of the people and sacrifice their time and resources for the benefit of others. Those most excited about these activities tend to be organic leaders in the community who are also the most receptive to struggle-oriented politics.

Preparing for the revolutionary crisis

The pressing task of the day for those who seek a socialist transformation of society is not to build dual power, but rather to build a revolutionary party. The capitalist class is able to remain in power despite its microscopic size because it has at its disposal a state staffed by people who are effectively professional counter-revolutionaries dedicated to maintaining the status quo.

The only instrument that has historically proven capable of overcoming the entrenched power of the state is a revolutionary party composed of cadre — professional revolutionaries. But a revolutionary party cannot be constructed overnight. The ideological and practical training of its membership, the development of new generations of leadership, and the recruitment of the most committed activists from a wide range of social movements is a long and painstaking process. Whether or not the revolutionary party has built deep, lasting bonds of trust and confidence with the workers and oppressed is of decisive importance. 

Independent of the actions of the revolutionaries, a revolutionary crisis in society can and will occur. Usually brought about as a consequence of an economic crisis or a war, a revolutionary crisis is a brief period of time when the existing social order is so deeply despised and delegitimized in the eyes of the vast majority of the population that the state can no longer go on ruling in the old way. Under these circumstances, dual power in the true sense of the term can emerge, and the rule of the capitalists can give way to the rule of the people. 

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...