From Protest Movements to Transformative Politics

Luciana Castellina

Movements are important because they move. Political parties, like other so-called ‘intermediate’ bodies (for example, trade unions and even more so the institutions that, taken as a whole, constitute the democratic political context) tend to become sclerotic if not completely immobile pachyderms, weighed down by their organizational obesity.

This is why every historical passage is marked by an insurgent movement, and why movements appeal to those who want the world to change and not remain locked in the present.

Movements move because they have the antennae to pick up on the social mood, a tool that structured organizations do not, precisely because these structures tend to separate them from the people.

Fifty years ago, a man as commanding and powerful as Mao Tse Tung, head of the vast Chinese communist party, called on the movement to bring about a drastic correction in the very party of which he was indisputably president: being unable himself to halt the growing bureaucratization of power, he launched the famous slogan ‘bombard the headquarters’.

It is no coincidence that outside China this call was taken up by social movements around the world which were at the time in foment across factories and universities. This was not just because they shared the shape and content of the cultural revolution in China, about which they knew little or nothing, but because they interpreted the slogan as the need to destroy the paralyzing bureaucracies in their own political parties.

It was ’68 and so the ‘M’ of Mao became the third in the trio of Marx and Marcuse on the placards carried in street demonstrations. And that date entered history.

Here, I have a few comments to make about ‘movementism’ – seeing movements as sacred cows, the only valid political agents – which often becomes an excuse for laziness. Because if the aim is truly to change the world, it is not enough to comprehend emerging needs, call for these to be met, go out on street protests against those who want to thwart people’s aspirations. This is not to deny their validity, but to call for a more realistic and less triumphalist analysis, in order to identify their shortcomings.

A new wave of global movements

Straddling the dawn of the new millennium a new wave of global movements saw that in revolutionizing the world the ‘the real new Winter Palaces’ to storm were the institutions at the helm of globalization, namely the World Trade Organization (WTO), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the G-7 and G-8, – until then largely invisible to political parties, the media and parliaments, and therefore to public opinion.

The first institution they had the foresight to storm as from the 1990s was then then little-known OECD, which had proposed the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (the infamous MAI). The protests that were unleashed – the first of a truly international character – were described as ‘the first online guerrilla war’.

In fact, it was the first experience of meeting up via the internet, and of achieving at least a provisional victory, in that the MAI ended up being shipwrecked for the time being. And this same approach was used in successive attempts to reach multilateral accords, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), with which we are still grappling.

Nevertheless, while the huge anti-globalization mobilizations – in Seattle against the WTO in 1999, in Genova against the G8 in 2001 and so forth until the most recent events in Hamburg last July – did not succeed in disrupting the power of their adversaries, these mobilizations did have a healthy political effect: they exposed to the world where the true sanctuaries of power lay, revealing the new real Winter Palaces.

The mobilizations of Seattle and Genoa did have a healthy political effect: they exposed to the world where the true sanctuaries of power lay, revealing the new real Winter Palaces

Even the smaller, more local – and more numerous – movements against environmental destruction have played an important role in raising and developing awareness of the environmental risks we now face, another issue that is, if not ignored, certainly largely marginalized by political parties.

That said, while it is important, simply denouncing is not enough to change things. And the lack of risk-taking eventually becomes a weakness in these very same movements which, discouraged by their helplessness, see their numbers drop and become increasingly fractured.

This is why I think it is necessary to address this issue with less triumphalism and to examine the causes of their inadequacy in order to address them.

Here are a few considerations:

First, all left-wing parties were born – and this was their initial strength – from the womb of the labour movement. It could be said that every ‘real’ party, legitimized by a history that bears witness to the capacity of real social representation, is born from a movement. Only ‘fake’ parties emerge from vertical decisions, which are therefore void of any historical and social roots. Unfortunately, in recent times, many of the latter parties have emerged but, naturally enough, did not last.

We must also bear in mind, however, that social representation today is far less linear than in the past – and thus, in many ways, more difficult. There is no longer a ‘good old’ working class; a community that is geographically concentrated, socially homogeneous and shares the same economic and cultural conditions.

Nowadays, labour (the market) has changed profoundly and we are now in an arena that is still exploited by capital, but is crushed by fragmentation and the spread of deceptively autonomous work, usually concealing a lack of clear contracts. The most symbolic case is of course Uber, which has itself led to the ‘Uberization’ of a significant part of the labour market – think of the ‘couriers’ and other delivery professionals, for example. The workers are isolated and crushed, making it increasingly difficult to apply the same collective agreements unions were once able to negotiate.

Second, to the conflict between capital and labour have been added new intersecting contradictions, which have only gained general awareness in recent decades. Here, I wish to highlight the intersections between the contradictions of class with those of gender and ecology, though these are by no means the only ones: increased mobility has heightened the racial, ethnic and religious contradictions that globalization has forced us to live together. Before these were ‘foreign’, now we are face to face with them at the supermarket.

All this means that, unlike how it used to be in the past, the social agent of change is far less homogeneous and increasingly unable to be the immediate subject of necessary transformation that Marxism and all its variants attributed to the working class. Capitalist development does not unify but differentiates and dismantles different subjects.

I would also take issue with what Negri and Hardt affirm in their popular book, Multitude, regarding ‘general intellect’, whereby the diffusion of work with a very high intellectual content which, in producing social relations rather than material goods, would almost naturally lead to the emancipation of labour. The spread of intellectual work does not in itself have a progressive function, however, because it simultaneously produces depoliticization: its contents are ‘cleansed’ of their connections with politics, shaped by the dominant hegemony and thus condemned to subordination.

So, the ‘Aufbehung’ (sublation) defined by Marx as the social engine of change in the here and now, is less and less spontaneously created. Today, this change can only be achieved by an anti-capitalist bloc that could unite what is currently divided. In turn, this rebuilding can only take place as a high-level project in which the various alternative subjects can join together and overcome their immediate conditions.

Building unity from diversity

It is no coincidence that while the exploited are the 99% and the exploiters the 1%, as we like to repeat, this overwhelming majority can and will never win: united in protest, it falls apart when it has to become proactive.

A movement is not enough. There is a need for the mediation of an organized subjectivity; able to overcome the particularities, to rebuild the connective tissue that binds society and politics.

Because a movement is not enough, there is a need for the mediation of an organized subjectivity; able to overcome the particularities, to rebuild the connective tissue that binds society and politics. An alternative subjectivity can exist only with free human beings, and we can only be free if we are aware and therefore released from the social determinants produced by the specific context that gives rise to them.

This is precisely why today more than ever we need a party – by which I mean an organism that can concentrate theory, experience and discipline as well as strategic vision.

Third, the richness of diversity must certainly be safeguarded, and it was undoubtedly right to challenge the arrogant claim of the dominant culture to be ‘universal’, denying status to all the others. I think, however, that the ‘Rainbow’ image to which movements often resort is at risk of being derailed. I therefore believe in the need for a critical revisiting of a particular interpretation of UNESCO’s Convention on Cultural Diversity.

Cultures are not seeds or fauna that must be preserved in immutable diversity. Cultures lose their anthropological purpose if they do not change and if they do not interact with one another; if they do not reject the confines of a small garden in which to cultivate their own diversity for the purpose of self-consumption; if they do not become – as they should – active elements in a dialogue that should aspire to build a common universal, both replacing the vision unilaterally imposed by the West as well as overcoming the narrowness of their own respective views.

In this sense, we can understand that the immediacy which characterizes movements must be superseded by a subjective effort to avoid its subjugation and strive against the perpetuation of cultural ghettos. To construct a real universality implies a long and difficult dialogue-based approach and achieving the conditions that would allow all cultures to truly participate in the process. (By way of illustration, 85% of the information we consume comes from Western sources.)

Fourth, we need to understand what we mean by political party, not only because of the moral and cultural impoverishment of the parties we have inherited makes this difficult to discern. The mistrust and rejection of existing parties is now rampant as they are seen as mere instruments with which to win power. And yet without parties – that is, organisms capable of spurring individual action, of consolidating a collective will around a global project, of opening a channel of communication between society and institutions – democracy is reduced to very little.

So, we can understand the growing disenchantment. To vote every five years or so simply to say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ has nothing to do with democracy; the executive branch of government now faces a very dangerous crisis as it is increasingly detached from its social fabric and purpose.

Democracy cannot be understood only in terms of individual rights and guarantees either, almost as if it were a sort of compensation – I am referring here to the example to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, now incorporated in the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon, which weakened one of the most important collective rights: the power to contribute to political debate.

Democracy and mass action

By party I refer to Gramsci’s conception of it: not a vanguard party separated from society and whose consciousness comes from outside, but a party as a vector for mass action, from people who are fully aware (as opposed to populism, which seeks to render it passive, enticing it to hand itself over to a leader).

A ‘collective intellectual’ party would thus bridge as far as possible the gap between its leaders and its members, and also reduce the separation between the different roles of the leadership and the various functions of the militant body; a party that would therefore be able to rebuild the connective tissue that binds society and politics.

Gramsci clearly saw the risks of self-referential politics, be it of parties, of governments, or of any potential future government. This is all the more evident when we observe the immense arbitrariness in states where the market has been eliminated or seriously weakened.

Hence, Gramsci took Lenin’s ‘libertarian’ intuition of ‘State and Revolution’, in which the Bolshevik leader spoke of the ‘extinction of the state’, whereby the management functions historically expropriated by the state bureaucracy are re-appropriated by society. And in this regard, he pointed to the role of the Soviets, not the ‘October’ insurrectional ones, but the organisms of direct democracy that were supposed to guarantee social self-management. A hypothesis completely abandoned – as we know – by Soviet power after the hard years of civil war, or rather imperialist aggression, and the dramatic regression it induced.

Gramsci notes need for network of councils that constrain arbitrary government actions that allows forms of direct democracy to interweave with those of delegated democracy.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci notes the need for the soviets – Councils – as tools capable of engaging in the essential dialectic to constrain arbitrary government actions, an efficient network that allows forms of direct democracy to interweave with those of delegated democracy.

This hypothesis presupposes a shift from the statist conception and its obsession with winning central power – which are typical of both the social-democrat and communist traditions – both of which tend to emphasize the role of the state by conquering it either through parliamentary channels in the former or through insurrection in the latter.

This obsession has led to modelling the very structure of these parties on the centrality of state power (almost exclusively electoral commitments and promises to do this or that ‘when the party gets into government’). They thus prioritized institutions and ignored society whose conquest is decisive, at least if the revolution is to aim for less catastrophic results than those History has to offer.

Of course, to go beyond a statist culture does not mean agreeing with anti-statism, which is unfortunately the failing of many movements. The control of the central political power still remains necessary, especially in an advanced capitalist society – because the transformation necessary to create an alternative society (in which work is freed from alienation and the market is no longer the instrument that defines our lives) needs political power.

It was considerably easier for the French Revolution to take place because the bourgeoisie had already developed social and economic relations that were no longer feudal but capitalist in nature, and lacked only political adjustment. Conditions that today appear impossible.

Winning power: essential but not sufficient for transformative politics

This is why it is important to free ourselves from the illusion preached by Holloway that it is possible to ‘change the world without taking power’.

When I say that the parties of the left must correct their statist culture I mean that winning central power must be viewed as an essential but not exclusive condition for the transition. It is only a moment within a social process and anyway requires a strong hegemony, the ability to build a relationship among the proletariat, past history, and legacies and to interpret an intricate historical context – all of which are the conditions to build a common new meaning or vision.

In short, political power does not dissolve as some on the fringes of movements have come to believe. Rather, it must be expropriated, which is possible only to the extent that organized forms of direct expression of the collective will are rebuilt.

Winning central power must be viewed as an essential but not exclusive condition for the transition

What Gramsci sought to do with writing from his prison cell in the 1930s, and what Togliatti – the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) Secretary – tried to outline for Italy’s communist culture in the aftermath of WWII – surprisingly, quite different from that of all Western countries – was precisely what we call the ‘Gramsci Genome’.

Indeed, the PCI achieved great strength because it was inside the institutions while also being – in particular – a decisive agent in stimulating social conflicts thanks to being rooted in society. And indeed, in Italy, everything we have gained in terms of rights has been won by opposition forces, achievements that were then ratified thanks to the new balance of power at an institutional level.

This political heritage disintegrated in the 1970s and 1980s up to the PCI’s own dissolution. It would take too long to explain how we arrived at this point. Suffice to say that what led the PCI to its sad demise was precisely its growing identification with the institutions and with the local powers it managed in a large part of the country despite being – thanks to the unspoken iron rule of the Cold War – excluded from the national government.

It is this progressive disengagement with society that left the PCI deaf to the movement of 1968 – which unveiled new struggles and contestations of an advanced capitalist society, a movement that was no less anti-capitalist but in fact far more radically so – and therefore wasted an extraordinary opportunity.

This moment in Italian history, when for a few decades a party very much like the one Gramsci had hypothesized was thriving, we must remember how important it is to avoid the sirens of self-sufficiency.

It is therefore crucial that the construction of forms of organized democracy in society be sufficiently robust and widespread to influence its actions. It should not be the mere expression of a disorganized civil society (which would then inevitably be marked by the values of the dominant power), nor only intermittent movements that are therefore unable to become self-managing social structures, torn from the competencies of state bureaucracy.

These forms – the re-appropriation of state power –are steps towards the gradual extinction of state that Gramsci refers to in his reinterpretation of Lenin’s work.

Building democratic power from below

Today, this may seem like a strange utopian hypothesis but it isn’t if we look at the events that opened a path in that direction.

In Italy in the early 1970s, when the working-class and student movements were particularly strong, and new political practices were invented, similar to the organisms imagined by Gramsci: the Consigli di Fabbrica, the Factory Councils, were not just union structures bargaining for the workers’ wages, they were fully political and therefore committed to renegotiating the organization of labour and production. They were made up of delegates, directly elected by all the workers and independent of the trade unions that were so often bureaucratized.

Factory workers councils in Zanussi, Attalid

Photos of factory workers councils in Zanussi, Attalid and elsewhere meeting and also protesting including against nuclear weapons and military bases. Credit: AAMOD.IT

Thanks to the strength they gained in many factories, they were able to extend their activities beyond the workplace – which led to the creation of Consigli di Zona, Local Councils, in many areas. These councils sought to defend the rights and improve the quality of life of working people, not only determined by their conditions of work but also by the quality of housing, health services, education, the environment and so forth.

Various organisms of collective control and innovative proposals regarding health structures, services, housing, schools and even police were then created (as result of which groups started to emerge such as the ‘Democratic Police’, ‘Democratic Medicine’, ‘Democratic Psychiatry’ …).

These were more than movements because they went a step further: they were movements of struggle that then became instruments to exercise power from below; intermittent but permanent forms of winning the spaces of power.

I would not define these forms as ‘counter-powers’ because I find the term ambiguous; it suggests a minority and subaltern resistance whereas the hypothesis here was to give life to alternative forms, to the prefiguration of a different way of managing society and of conceiving democracy.

However, this experiment is over as well, having fallen victim to the neoliberal counter-offensive that began in the 1980s. The struggle-based movements had indeed created the conditions for its creation but they failed to fully endorse the role of the Councils.

To give a concrete example in the Italian context; the movement against the privatization of water was influential a few years ago, to the point of actually calling for – and winning – a referendum. But this movement simply evaporated and, with a few exceptions, was never able to form a ‘Council’, sufficiently rooted to tackle all the issues and responsibilities that arose from the referendum victory (such as, who maintains the pipelines, on what criteria the water distribution networks are based, etc.), eventually overturning the very substance of that important conquest.

Socializing common goods: cooperatives and markets

Fortunately, there is today a thriving discussion in movements on issues concerning common goods, that is to say on the idea of a socialization – rather than the state nationalization – of public assets. It is clear, however, that this idea needs more than the capacity to protest and instead requires its permanent structuring.

This is not all. Cooperatives, experiences with a long tradition in many European countries, originated from similar conditions: to create companies that manage services or produce assets owned by the very workers employed in those companies. In Italy, the League of Cooperatives has existed for well over a century, and this goes for the UK and other countries too.

As Hilary Wainwright develops in her upcoming book, A New Politics from the Left, Tony Benn relaunched the idea of cooperatives in order to save factories otherwise condemned to closure. In Argentina, for example, it is precisely this model of the cooperative company that was adopted to manage the many factories in distress during the financial crisis, often with great success.

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In the wake of Argentina’s spectacular economic collapse in 2001, Latin America’s most prosperous middle class finds itself in a ghost town of abandoned factories and mass unemployment.

Nevertheless, one cannot but reflect on how most of these experiences of cooperative companies has developed: in Italy, the League of Cooperatives is now one of the most powerful business groups in the country, it manages supermarkets, insurance, construction and so forth, but its methods are no different from any other private enterprise. Its employees have no voice in their branches, no dividend and are instead exposed to the same – if not worse – conditions of exploitation of their labour. As long as this type of business has to compete in the market, they inevitably end up accepting its imperatives, the most important one being the maximization of profit.

The self-management model that characterized Yugoslav socialism, a good example at first, came into crisis when the initial phase of accumulation led to the next step in which once the proceeds had been distributed among the partners, it was necessary to decide how to invest the remaining profit. Here again, the self-managed businesses had to conform to the laws of the financial market, with all of its consequences.

This does not mean that we cannot or should not try, as long as we bear in mind that it is not as easy as it might appear and that it is not enough to create a cooperative to satisfy what Raymond Williams defined in 1961 as ‘the rising determination that people should govern themselves’.

On this issue, Hilary Wainwright writes that it is necessary to shift from ‘governmental power’ to ‘transformative power’, thus indicating the possibility to bring about change even before entering government by taking action within civil society.

While I agree with this, I think it is also essential to remember that while it is possible to realize what Gramsci coined ‘alternative foreshadowings’, these are always instances of struggle, of ‘liberated zones’ in a territory that is still in the enemy’s hands in an ongoing war. There should therefore be no illusions that some form of organic growth of painless experiences that spreads and modifies reality as easily as a virus, is possible.

The complexity of the of the problems we face today serves to remind us of the urgency with which movements need to step up to the next level. Achieving a society that represents an alternative to the barbarism to which late capitalism is subjecting us is made more difficult not only because our adversaries have become more powerful, but also because the revolution required goes far deeper and needs to be more complete than what was hypothesized a century ago.

It is no longer enough to call for a fairer redistribution of the same things. Rather, there is a need to produce different goods in a different way and consume different things, that is to live in a different way, according to different values and priorities than we had in the past. This is why we need to change the subjects themselves, the protagonists, of possible change.

If it is true that the new paradoxes of our age offer for the first time the objective bases for giving that critique of capitalism a practical impact, to the qualitative overthrow of the social structure and the values that regulate it, to which Marx had only been able allude due to historical immaturity, it is also true that to leverage them, we need to review our political practice and our strategy.

A convincing alternative to irrational consumption

If we want to propose a convincing alternative, we must be able to respond to the search for meaning that arises from the present unease.

This is what we have not been able to do except in words. We have not produced – as would be necessary – social practices that allow society to mobilize in forms that are more than just sporadic. And to do this even though people increasingly feel the irrationality of a system that relies on the choices of a market so short-sighted that it cannot see beyond its nose. A market that can identify individual and short-term profitability, rather than one that can support community and have a long-term impact.

Suffice it to think about the environmental question, for which we need to act upstream and not downstream; this is why it is necessary to aim for deferred productivity and profitability, since it is only in the long term that the investments necessary for research, innovation and infrastructural transformation can be profitable.

It is only in the long term that the investment that may have been profitable in the immediate future will reveal its failings: the loss and cost for which the victims – the community – will have to pay, not the company or person that created the damage.

Similarly, most of us realize the irrationality between the ever-increasing supply of individual consumer goods that largely exceed our basic needs, while the demand for essential collective consumption such as schools, health, care for the elderly and children, transport, territorial organization and so on, remain widely unmet.

At the supermarket, a family can find every possible and useless (when not unhealthy) ‘snack’, yet if the grandfather falls ill it is a tragedy because there is no one to take care of him.

All of us (or almost all) are now convinced that the revolution does not consist in a single insurrectional act, but that the necessary rupture can be the fruit only of a long historical process. It is no longer a matter of occupation, as it was the case for the Winter Palace in Saint-Petersburg in October 1917, especially since the real power is no longer there, nor is it to be found in national or supra-national parliaments.

Today, the decisions that really matter derive from private commercial or financial agreements in global markets rather than political deliberations. (Actually, in recent decades not only public services have been privatized, but also the legislative power in itself: Bayer’s recent purchase of Monsanto, for example, will have more consequences for our lives than will any decisions made by our own parliaments!)

We must equip ourselves for a long journey and conquer what Gramsci called the ‘casematte’, the forts that guard the power of advanced capitalist societies, far more than the state itself and its armies.

If this is the case, we must equip ourselves for a long journey and conquer what Gramsci called the ‘casematte’, the forts that guard the power of advanced capitalist societies, far more than the state itself and its armies. This is why it is necessary for movements, and parties, which strive to achieve a different society, make a qualitative leap and not limit themselves to demonstrating at G7 summits or to winning elections.

Wolfgang Streeck’s last book, How Will Capitalism End?, offers a dramatic hypothesis: there will be a phase when the capitalist system will eventually disintegrate and produce bloody and irrational conflicts and terrible exclusions, and yet no other system can prevail.

Again, Gramsci comes to mind: ‘the old is dead but the new has yet to be born’. If Streeck is right, and he may well be, it is fundamental to increasingly assume the responsibility of directly managing society and gaining self-organization skills. It is a very difficult project, but we should not say we did not try because it was too hard.

Talking about politics together: learning from our differences

I realize after writing these notes how difficult it is for us to talk about politics together. This because History has produced experiences, structures and cultures that differ greatly not only across continents but also between European nations. Nations that are all fully embedded within the capitalist system, but very different in many ways in their respective superstructures.

I really came to this realization as I was reading the latest book by Hilary Wainwright, whom I have known for many years. When Hilary discusses parties, for example, she refers the Labour Party model – a parliamentary party par excellence. I, however, refer to the Italian Communist Party, whose parliamentary action was only one aspect, and not its most important, within a much broader scope of activity. We only started to make a clear distinction between parties and movements after 1968. Before that watershed, the two were virtually indistinguishable.

The respective movements of ’68, despite sharing a strong common core, developed very differently from one another. Italy from this perspective was an anomaly: just as in France, the movement was born in the universities but it immediately spread among the factories, where it initially faced strong opposition from the trade unions.

However, the unions eventually opened themselves up to new forms and content of struggle that was at least partially disseminated through its powerful networks and ended up spreading throughout society. The same problems of schools and education also became the problems of the factory workers, an issue addressed not only by students but also by those who never went to school because they were excluded.

It is also for this reason that in the 1970s one of the most significant – though very partial –victories was obtained: the 150 hours, that is to say workers’ right to 150 hours of study per year – not to be better trained in order to perform the tasks their employers demanded, but to acquire culture.

The answer one worker gave when his boss wanted to force him use his 150 hours to improve his professional qualifications remains famously emblematic: ‘No, I wanted to use my 150 hours to learn how to play the violin!’ Italy’s ’68 was different because even if the background was widely shared throughout society, it was deeply for and by the working class and did not disappear in a seasonal explosion: it lasted for ten years.

The rich accumulation of experiences we enjoyed in Italy up to the end of the 1970s, and led to debates on the ‘Italian case’, which attracted widespread interest, did not immunize us against a harsh defeat. And today we find ourselves perhaps in a worse situation than other countries. We should reflect together on how things went, in Italy and elsewhere. But this would require another time, and another article.


Luciana Castellina is a journalist, writer and activist. She joined the Italian Communist Party in 1947, founded the paper Il Manifesto in 1970, and was a Member of the European Parliament from 1976 to 1999, where she served as president of the cultural committee, than of the External Economic Relation Committee. She is currently serving on the presidency of the Party “Sinistra Italiana” and is honorary president of ARCI (Associazione ricreativa culturale italiana). She is the author of many books including, Discovery of the world: Political awakening in the shadow of Mussolini (2011), winner of the Premio Strega, the main literary prize in Italy.

Luciana Castellina


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