Marxist Perspectives on 21st-Century Transition to Socialism

Ricardo R.
Fuentes Ramírez


During the last two decades, many Marxists have undertaken analyses of feasible alternatives to capitalism, and the particular institutional forms these may take. However, studies focusing on the phase between our current reality and the construction of a transitional system toward socialism are less common. Specifically, we lack studies focusing on which institutions and processes are most likely to be successful in bringing about a transition to socialism. The Occupy Movement in the United States, the “Indignados” in Spain, the Arab Spring, and the “Turn to the Left” in Latin America, all exemplify the urgency of deepening our analysis of what is to be done in the short and medium run. The main objective of this study is to carry out a critical survey of the different institutions and initiatives currently being proposed within the Marxist tradition as tools in the transition to socialism, focusing on their strengths and weaknesses, and their feasibility in different parts of the globe.

Erik Olin Wright (2010) has developed a theoretical framework to assess different institutions and initiatives of this nature. He argues there are three basic logics of transformation through which institutions of social empowerment might be built: ruptural, interstitial, and symbiotic (2010: 303). Ruptural change refers to creating new institutions through a sharp break with existing institutions and social structures. Existing institutions “are destroyed and new ones built in a fairly rapid way” (2010: 303). Interstitial transformation refers to building forms of empowerment in the niches and margins of capitalism. Finally, symbiotic transformation refers to deepening social empowerment through ways that also temporarily benefit the dominant classes (2010: 303-5).

Wright explains that these visions respectively correspond to the revolutionary socialist, anarchist, and social democratic traditions. Also, these transformative logics are distinct in terms of how they conceive the pivotal actors of transition, their stance toward the state, and their stance toward the capitalist class. According to Wright, ruptural strategists conceive the main actor as the working class, organized through a political party, in order to attack (seize) the state and confront the bourgeoisie. Interstitial strategists conceive the main actors as social movements, which build alternatives outside the state, and ignore the bourgeoisie. Symbiotic strategists conceive the main actors as coalitions of social forces and labor, which use the state, and collaborate with the bourgeoisie (2010: 305-7). Wright explains, “none of these strategies is simple and unproblematic. All contain dilemmas, risks, and limits, and none of them guarantee success. In different times and places, one or another of these modes of transformation may be the most effective, but often all of them are relevant… A long-term political project of emancipatory transformation… must grapple with the messy problem of combining different elements of these strategies” (2010: 307). I agree with Wright that these categories are useful in order to assess different proposals for political action.

While most socialists probably agree that these three logics must be combined and few argue in favor of strictly adhering to one transition strategy, analyzing them individually provides insights into how and when they should be combined. Although I mostly share Wright’s general assessment of these transition logics, I propose to expand on his work and use his framework to analyze political proposals from different tendencies within the Left. In my view, the most problematic scenario is where symbiotic or interstitial strategies are engaged without ruptural elements. Instead, symbiotic and interstitial strategies should be combined and specifically aimed at being means toward phases of rupture with capitalism.

Ruptural Transition                 

As Wright points out, “few critics of capitalism today imagine that a revolutionary overthrow of the state in developed capitalist countries is a plausible strategy of emancipatory social transformation” (2010: 308). He declares from the start that he considers the strategy’s success unlikely and far-fetched. Nevertheless, Wright decides to briefly discuss this vision. His main critique of ruptural transition is related to what he calls “transition troughs” (311). Wright explains that ruptural strategies do not necessarily need to be based on an armed vanguard party seizing the state. A socialist party could through elections achieve sufficient state power to initiate a ruptural transition. However, “any rupture with capital would necessarily entail significant economic disruption and thus sacrifice” and “certainly precipitate a significant decline in production and standards of living” (315). This transition trough would probably lead to socialists losing the support of the population, causing the country or region to revert back to capitalism. The only alternative would be for socialists to turn to authoritarian rule, which according to Wright, historical experience has shown will permanently undermine the transition to socialism (318).

The main problem with Wright’s assessment is the absence of peripheral capitalist countries from the discussion. Not only have the most significant ruptural initiatives of the 20th century occurred in peripheral capitalism, but they have also been the transition strategies that have come closest to socialism. Additionally, since ruptural transitions tend to occur in areas with already low standards of living, the possibility of the population beginning to see improvements relatively quickly, and consequently increasing support for the transition, is not necessarily far-fetched. Similarly, due to the size of the economic surplus in advanced capitalist countries, it is not implausible to conceive its redistribution ameliorating a transition trough. Therefore, the possible problem of transition troughs is not sufficient to disregard ruptural processes even in advanced capitalism.

The vehicle of arriving to state power, be it armed revolution or electoral participation, would depend on the political conditions of each region. During the 20th century, armed revolution turned out to be a successful strategy in countries with highly authoritarian and repressive governments. In the absence of authoritarian states or highly undemocratic electoral institutions, socialists could in theory use elections to achieve state power and initiate a ruptural transition. Chile in the early 1970s and Venezuela in the early 2000s could be examples of this strategy. Unfortunately, the 1973 coup in Chile robbed us of the historical lessons that could have been learned in terms of the limits of this type of ruptural transition. According to sociologist James Petras (2008), who advised both Allende and Chávez in said periods, an important lesson from the brief Chilean experiment is that to avoid political blockages from the opposition, political transformations should precede radical socio-economic transformations. In Venezuela, some political transformations did come first, and the 1999 constitutional reform certainly represented a rupture, where many institutions were immediately eliminated while other, empowering institutions were created. Nevertheless, it was much more limited in scope compared to other ruptural transitions in the 20th century, and the radical socio-economic transformation is yet to arrive.

This last issue is related to another important point Wright makes: “The logic of ruptural transformation need not be restricted to totalizing ruptures in entire social systems” (2010: 309). Transition to socialism could consist of rupture in terms of certain institutions, and of what Wright calls “metamorphic” change in others. These combinations of transition strategies, as well as the current case of Venezuela, will be discussed further in more detail.

Interstitial Transition                

Wright explains that the adjective “interstitial” refers to the different processes that occur in the spaces and cracks of a social structure. An interstitial strategy refers to the “deliberate development of interstitial activities for the purpose of fundamental transformation of the system as a whole” (2010: 324). Some examples of interstitial activities that could play a role in transition, according to Wright, are: worker and consumer co-ops, battered women’s shelters, workers factory councils, community-based social economy services, community-controlled land trusts, cross-border equal-exchange trade organizations, internet based strategies that subvert capitalist intellectual property, and open-source software and technology projects. He explains that interstitial strategists believe these activities can initiate transition in two ways: 1) by altering the conditions for eventual rupture, or 2) by gradually expanding the effective scope and depth of their operations (328). In the first case, which he explains is the view of revolutionary anarchists; it is argued that interstitial activities can improve the quality of life of individuals until a certain point at which capitalism becomes a binding constraint. At this point, rupture would be necessary, but already developed interstitial institutions would reduce the length and depth of the transition trough. Also, interstitial activities serve as demonstrations that alternatives to capitalism are possible; therefore, contributing to the political will for rupture (328-30). Even though Wright classifies this view as a revolutionary anarchist view, it could just as well be understood as a socialist strategy of building toward rupture, as will be discussed further on. The second case, which is the view of evolutionary anarchists, does not assume capitalism will impose a binding constraint on the growth of interstitial activities, so a transition could be initiated within capitalism without need of rupture (332). Before going over Wright’s critiques, as well as other critiques of interstitial logic, recent proposals for interstitial strategies within the Marxist tradition should be discussed.

As Wright mentions (2010: 324), interstitial activities have been the preferred strategy of anarchists and theorists sometimes referred to as “Autonomous Marxists.” One of the most notable theorists in this tradition is John Holloway. His most known book’s title, Changing the World without Taking Power, clearly illustrates the main idea behind a purely interstitial approach. Holloway (2012: 203) argues that the anti-capitalist drive is no longer focused on the state, and the illusion of the state as an alternative to “the rule of money” has been greatly weakened. He contends that the drive against capitalism now takes the form of “the creation of interstitial spaces, spaces or moments in which experimental forms of social cohesion are created on a different basis, consciously following a different logic.” These spaces “can be seen as cracks in the texture of capitalist domination, cracks in the rule of money, moments or spaces that push against-and-beyond existing society.” As potential transformative interstitial strategies, he lists house occupations, social centers, community gardens, alternative radio stations, free software movements, teachers who encourage their students to be critical, doctors who think about their patients and not just about money, peasant rebellions, factory occupations, and May Day festivals. He contends the only hope for transition is through the creation, expansion, multiplication, and confluence of these interstitial activities (2012: 204).

Another mainly interstitial theory of transition can be found in Marxian economist Richard Wolff’s recent work. Wolff (2012: 105) defines socialism as a system where workers, the producers of the surplus, are also those who appropriate and distribute the surplus. Therefore, it is this micro-level condition that distinguishes a system as socialist. Macro-level characteristics, such as the role of planning and markets, or the particular type of ownership that prevails, should be codetermined by workplace and community democracies along the way, in accord with conjunctural factors (144).

Wolff therefore concludes (2012: 122) that the development of firms where workers collectively appropriate and distribute the surplus they produce would represent a social transition beyond capitalism. He refers to these firms as “Workers’ Self-directed Enterprises,” or WSDEs. Wolff also clarifies that not all worker-owned enterprises, worker-managed enterprises, or cooperatives are necessarily WSDEs (119-22). In most worker-owned enterprises, worker/owners simply leave the directing of the enterprise in the hands of a board of directors, who continue appropriating and distributing the surplus. Worker-managed enterprises are usually firms in which capitalists give more control to workers while expecting more profits or growth, therefore serving the interests of capital. Finally, cooperatives include a wide variety of institutions, including firms for cooperative purchasing or selling. Many cooperatives are simply groups of small capitalists purchasing inputs cooperatively. To be considered a WSDE, the appropriation and distribution of the surplus has to be done cooperatively, and the workers who cooperatively produce the surplus are identical to those who cooperatively appropriate and distribute it. He emphasizes that in these firms, workers “collectively determine what the enterprise produces, the appropriate technology, the location of production, and related matters” (118).

Wolff believes that if WSDEs organize mutual support and sufficient political strength, they might prevail in competition with capitalist firms (2012: 157). This process could be reinforced if 1) workers in WSDEs prove to be more productive than workers in other firms, 2) they reduce the remuneration of managers and channel those funds for technological innovation, and 3) they differentiate their products as being associated with democratic non-capitalist work organization. To ensure their growth and role in transition, Wolff delineates five main strategies (169-79). The first is to struggle for a government job program that provides founding capital to workers willing to commit to building WSDEs. He explains that “learning from and adapting the example of Italy’s very successful 1985 Marcora Law, which enabled workers to take over enterprises that were in crisis, the US government could offer unemployed workers a similar choice” (170). This includes providing government support for these WSDEs, such as technical assistance, subsidized or guaranteed credit access, temporary tax exemptions, preferential purchasing of WSDE goods and services, or requiring product labels to reflect the organization of their production, so consumers could recognize and choose WSDE products.

The second strategy is to seek alliances with the existing cooperative movement, and for example create joint campaigns for a US version of the Marcora Law and ease tax burdens on existing cooperatives. Third, seek an alliance with the trade union movement that coalesces around WSDEs developing alongside unions’ struggles against capitalist employers. Fourth, develop the organic intellectuals of the WSDE movement, that is, people who believe in WSDEs as instruments of social change, and are inclined and skilled enough to find effective means to communicate their beliefs and thereby build such a movement. Wolff argues “the program for increased WSDEs needs to support and build—in universities, labor unions, social movements, and beyond—the meetings, discussions, courses, and centers that can generate and train organic intellectuals” (179). The last strategy is to aspire toward the creation of a new independent political party that will contest for governmental power to accomplish social change, with WSDEs as a major component. It should be noted that Wolff’s conception of transition is evidently not purely interstitial. Unlike “Autonomous Marxists,” Wolff believes the state should play a role in the process of interstitial transformation.

The interstitial logic of transition has received a wide variety of criticism. Wright argues it is difficult to see how interstitial strategies will, by themselves, erode the basic structural power of capital (2010: 335). In other words, Wright’s main criticism is that we should not simply ignore the state; it must be engaged to further the process of empowerment. His critique therefore mainly applies to purely interstitial strategies like those of “Autonomous Marxists.”

Mimmo Porcaro has also critically analyzed this theory of “changing the world without taking power.” Porcaro explains (2012) that there have been two widespread popular conceptions of revolution linked with this tradition. The first is derived from a gradualist reading of Gramsci’s concepts of war of position and war of movement. This line of reasoning argues we should first wage a war of position and conquer the fortresses of civil society (schools, cultural and religious apparatuses, social reproduction structures, and factories). Only afterwards should we engage in war of movement and conquer the “headquarters,” or state power and political power of the state as a whole. The second conception of revolution is that derived from the postmodern notion of “liquid society,” which argues “all social relations are diffused throughout the whole society in the same way, without any one of these relations occupying a dominant position in respect to the others, and consequently the problem of conquering the headquarters is thought to be completely obviated by the fact that the headquarters does not exist, with power being evenly spread through the whole society” (Porcaro 2012: 91). In other words, we live in a “liquid society” governed by “flows” that have dissolved power; therefore seizing power is no longer necessary.

Porcaro declares this type of logic outdated for our present scenario (2012: 86). He agrees we should develop interstitial institutions; especially forms of self-organization and of participatory democracy; but these must be accompanied by “coordinated action, articulated in steps and phases, aimed at the conquest and redetermination of state power” (2012: 87). Without the latter, there would be no “political, juridical and economic resources allowing popular institutions to construct a new social order.” He concedes the state and classes have evolved in the last century, and seizing the state is not equal to “making communism.” However, he asserts, “without class analysis (and struggle) and without the state it is impossible to go anywhere” (88). In terms of their view of transition, he argues “those who have interpreted the advent of ‘flows’ as the beginning of the dissolution of power are way off the mark, for these flows are brought forth by terribly solid entities capable of thought and strategy: the ‘vertical’ apparatuses of the state (made still more effective by their supranational dislocation) and the big corporations.” He concludes that it is “not the fortresses of civil society that must be taken, nor can we delude ourselves that we can reach communism by navigating in capitalism’s flows. Rather it is the general headquarters of capital and the state that must be seized; it is to these we have to get near through steps and phases” (92).

For David Harvey (2012: 122), interstitial activities like worker control, community-owned projects, “solidarity” economies, local economic trading systems and barter, or creating autonomous spaces like those of the Zapatistas, have “not so far proved viable as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions.” The main reason is that “all enterprises operating in a capitalist economy are subject to ‘the coercive laws of competition’ that undergird the capitalist laws of value production and realization,” so “worker-controlled or cooperative enterprises tend at some point to mimic their capitalistic competitors, and the more they do so the less distinctive their practices become.”

Furthermore, he explains, “the circulation of capital comprises three distinctive circulatory processes, those of money, productive, and commodity capitals,” which intermingle and co-determine each other. Therefore, interstitial units of production will rarely survive “in the face of a hostile financial environment and credit system and the predatory practices of merchant capital” (2012: 122-3). Harvey concludes that we must move beyond re-organizing within the labor process. Instead, struggle “must also be about finding a political and social alternative to the operation of the capitalist law of value across the world market” (123).

In addition, the idea of initiating some sort of de-coupling between interstitial initiatives and capitalist processes seems close to impossible to Harvey. De-coupling not only makes some interstitial initiatives vulnerable to famines or other social or natural catastrophes, but it also seems unfeasible considering that “effective management and survival almost always depends upon the availability of sophisticated means of production.” He gives the example of a worker collective, where the ability to coordinate flows throughout a commodity chain depends on the availability of “power sources and technologies, such as electricity, cell phones, computers, and the internet, that are procured from that world in which the capitalist laws of value creation and circulation predominate” (123).

With respect to interstitial transition, Harvey makes the analogy of it being a sort of “termite theory.” Interstitial strategists argue that factory occupations, solidarity economies, collective autonomous movements, agrarian cooperatives, etc; can eat away at the institutional and material supports of capital until they collapse. The problem, for Harvey, “is not lack of potential effectiveness; it is that, as soon as the damage wrought becomes too obvious and threatening, then capital is both able and all too willing to call in the exterminators (state power) to deal with it” (2012: 124-25). This resonates with Wright’s and Porcaro’s critique, and it is perhaps the fundamental critique of interstitial strategy. In fact, this has been the main critique since the earliest stages of Marxism. Engels (1970) dismissed Robert Owen’s interstitial strategies as doomed to failure, although admitting that they at least serve some political purpose by being concrete examples of how capitalists are socially unnecessary.

Considering the fundamental critiques of interstitial transition that have been put forward since the 19th century, one would expect interstitial strategists to clarify and elaborate exactly how interstitial activities will not only survive within capitalism, but also expand and erode capitalism itself. By failing to address this challenge, purely interstitial strategies of transition, like those of Holloway and the “autonomist” tradition, retain a substantial theoretical and practical void.

However, most of the critics of interstitial transition, from Engels to Harvey, recognize that interstitial institutions do have political utility and transformative potential. Therefore, even though there are fundamental differences in terms of how socialism is defined, and the role interstitial institutions will play in the transition, there is probably consensus in that projects and movements that work to construct and expand these institutions, like Wolff’s WSDE movement, are worthwhile. Nevertheless, as Porcaro argues, the development of these interstitial activities must be accompanied by “coordinated action, articulated in steps and phases, aimed at the conquest and redetermination of state power” (2012: 87). How exactly we will utilize state power is the subject of the next section on symbiotic transition.

Symbiotic Transition

The basic idea of symbiotic strategy, according to Wright (2012: 337), is that advances in social empowerment will be more stable and defendable when these advances also help solve problems faced by dominant classes. In other words, if forms of social empowerment are to survive, become deeply institutionalized, and be harder to reverse, they should in some way or another serve the interests of dominant groups, or solve real problems faced by the system as a whole. The central idea is that we can achieve some sort of stable, positive class compromise based on the relationship between the associational power of the working class and the material interests of capitalists. According to this vision, we could arrive at an optimal point of cooperation between capital and labor for mutual benefit, or as Wright calls it, a Social Democratic Utopia (354).

The immediate question that arises, as Wright himself asks, is “why should we believe that this also has the potential of cumulatively transforming the system as a whole?” As he mentions, the most impressive examples of symbiotic strategy – the extension of the right to vote to the working class and empowering the labor movement as a central actor in the welfare state – both contributed to “consolidating very robust forms of capitalism” (364). Wright’s answer is that, optimistically speaking, symbiotic strategies could potentially open up greater spaces for interstitial strategies to work, “and the cumulative effect of such institution-building around expanded forms of empowerment could be to render ruptural transformations possible under unexpected future historical conditions” (365). As symbiotic logic is at the core of contemporary Social Democratic tradition, it is important to discuss some of the main critiques toward it from within the Marxist tradition.

Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber (2012) believe that social democracy has long ceased to have any connection to anti-capitalism. Social Democratic parties, according to these authors, have had a very long trajectory of shifting from an orientation of transforming capitalism, to one of better managing it. They argue that although “once they at least gave lip-service to socialism, they now tout their credentials as guardians of competitiveness and social discipline. Across Europe, the traditional labour parties, and the unions attached to them, have no vision except a return to some kind of guided capitalism” (2012: x). Albo adds that social democrats “do not offer—even as an all-purpose strategic objective—an anti-capitalist vision. Rather, they attempt to specify the institutional foundations for a ‘leashed capitalism’ where competition can be harnessed to work ‘better’ as the relationship between the state and the market is rebalanced” (2012: 8). In sum, “the practice of politics as part of a strategic vision of a democratic transition beyond capitalism has gone missing” from social democracy.

Alberto Toscano (2012) has a similar view of social democracy. He explains that while social democratic reformism once had an ideal of gradual transformation, now the “very notion of reform has been fundamentally evacuated of meaning or irrevocably traduced.” For Toscano, social democracy has mutated into social liberalism. He asserts that the last reformist strategy with a genuine vision of transformation was that of economist Rudolf Meidner in Sweden during the 1970s (2012: 183).

Meidner, along with the Swedish economist Gösta Rehn, developed the Rehn-Meidner model of macroeconomic policy, which was apparently successful in allowing the Swedish economy to grow during the post-war era in a context of cooperation and class compromise similar to what Wright described as the Social Democratic Utopia (Meidner 1993). In the 1970s, class struggle eventually intensified. More specifically, various sectors of the working class protested against the increasingly unequal distribution of the higher profits capitalists were continuously making and the increasing inequality within the working class. Meidner’s proposed solution was to have large corporations issue stock shares for workers, with the aim of granting workers majority control within 20 years. The political environment of compromise and cooperation was altered, and the balance of power tipped toward capital. Non-socialist political parties and business organizations managed to water down most of the social democrats’ proposals (Meidner 1993: 223). Meidner himself concluded, “the Swedish system, balancing private ownership and social control, has broken down because real power has shifted from labour to the owners of capital” (225). Other projects with symbiotic transition logic have also achieved dominant control over state power, such as the British Labour Party from 1945 to 1951 and the left coalition in France from 1981 to 1985. In both cases, political control of the state was never as secure as that of the Swedish Social Democratic Workers' Party, and power relatively swiftly shifted back to the opposition before any type of class compromise model of growth was actually developed.

The failure of social democracy, according to Toscano, stemmed from the fact that the social democratic utopian optimum, as Wright calls it, “can only be maintained, temporarily, through a fortunate conjunction of the balance of class forces, the cycle of accumulation, and the specific political strategies of workers’ movements and capitalist states. The recognition that capitalism can never be fully domesticated is both painful and important.” He concludes, “the historical conditions for social democracy are absent” (Toscano 2012: 187).

Paul Sweezy had already presented another valuable critique, which foresaw the failure of what was to become the social democratic project. Sweezy argued (1942: 349), “the state in capitalist society has always been first and foremost the guarantor of capitalist property relations” and has unmistakably been “the instrument of capitalist class rule.” Sweezy concludes that for it to be possible to use the state and arrive at our compromise and cooperation optimum, a certain combination of requirements must be met. The political actor must be a mass party that 1) is strictly free of capitalist interest, 2) has acquired state power and eliminated capitalists and their representatives from key positions, and 3) establishes a firm position so it would be overwhelmingly plain that any resistance by capitalists would be futile. If experience shows that these are the necessary conditions for such a symbiotic transition to work, “it also indicates no less clearly the impossibility of their fulfillment” (350-1). While it is conceivable in the abstract, in reality “capital holds the strategic positions.” “Money, social prestige, the bureaucracy and the armed forces of the state, the channels of public communications,” are all controlled by capital and “will continue to be used to the utmost to maintain the position of capital.” Sweezy concludes it is a law of capitalist politics that the outcome of these strategies will merely be the bankruptcy of reform (351-2).

Recent electoral parties that consider themselves leftist but not necessarily in the social democratic tradition, have also had unpromising results in terms of transition. This has been the experience in most Latin American countries where the left has achieved state power (excluding Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador; whose results in terms of transition are yet to be seen). As Atilio Boron explains (2012: 246), neoliberalism sparked a wide array of social movements that “took the streets and overthrew unpopular governments,” but only to replace them with quite similar governments. Across Latin America leftist parties tried to construct a new correlation of forces, similar to the optimum point of compromise and cooperation so far discussed. None of these governments gathered significant results. Boron asserts that the left parties who have won power in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have only been examples of subordinated classes not being able to impose a “clear and resolute post-neoliberal agenda” on the governments chosen by popular majorities. The result of electoral politics in Latin America is merely a “bitter taste of unfulfilled promises, a sense of generalized frustration and the reinforcement of political alienation” (247).

However, one of the main critiques of interstitial strategies is that the state should not be ignored; it should be engaged. The next inquiry would be: if the social democratic reformist project has failed as a tool in transition, how should the state be engaged? For Boron (2012: 248-9), lessons can already be extracted from the Latin American countries where electoral participation has been more promising. Unlike other countries where the separation of political from social organization was not overcome, in places like Bolivia and Ecuador, social movements “were able to create a party of their own,” and were able to “break out of the straitjacket” of strictly electoral politics. He concludes “if parties narrow their political range of choices when only engaged in the electoral arena, then social movements suffer the same consequences when they refuse to develop an institutional strategy to come to power while at the same time refusing to address a mass insurrectionary strategy to conquer state power” (253).

Similarly, Toscano (2012: 188-9) discusses the notion originally introduced by André Gorz of structural reform, or non-reformist revolutionary reform, which seeks reforms that “make concrete gains within capitalism which permit further movements against capitalism.” Toscano therefore proposes to construct “a politics of non-reformism reform, or of reforms without reformism,” which “could serve as a heuristic tool for an inventory of current measures, born of struggle, that move beyond the utopia of managing capital towards the investigation of means to counter and sap its power” (189). This is very similar to Wright’s idea of engaging the state in order to “potentially open up greater spaces for interstitial strategies to work” and “render ruptural transformations possible under unexpected future historical conditions” (2012: 365). Panitch, Albo, and Chibber (2012: xi) similarly pose the question: “Is it possible to find a way toward socialism through a combination of reforms, building mass organizations, confronting capital and its power centres, i.e., a strategy that is inevitably aggregative but which avoids the fate of the social democratic parties?” Therefore, the critique of purely interstitial and symbiotic logics of transition leads to another conception of transition we shall call “combined transition.”

Combined Transition

The deficiencies of interstitial and symbiotic strategies lead us to conclude that they are by themselves incapable of bringing about a transition to socialism. In the case of interstitial strategies, as previously discussed, it is unlikely they will be able to continuously expand in such a way as to actually pose a serious challenge to capitalism. Similarly, symbiotic strategies have proven incapable of moving from points of collaboration between labor and capital, toward actual transition to socialism. Instead, they have consistently reverted toward capitalism. However, by combining symbiotic and interstitial strategies, the transformative character of these processes may be preserved. Through the use of the state, social movements may enable interstitial strategies to actually expand enough to pose a threat to capitalism. Conversely, in countries where the socialist movement has not obtained political power, coalescing around particular interstitial strategies might gather sufficient support to create conditions toward obtaining it. In addition, due to the deficiencies of interstitial and symbiotic strategies, it is crucial they also be combined with ruptural strategies. In other words, interstitial and symbiotic initiatives should include the objective of obtaining or ensuring state power, in order to initiate phases of rupture with capitalism. However, it is not enough to simply assert that the left should seek to combine different types of strategy. In addition, we must ask how it is possible to do this, and which types of political systems or areas of the world economy favor different combinations.

David Harvey (2012) has put forward the idea of reclaiming the right to the city as a fundamental part of anti-capitalist struggle. His analysis can be understood as one of combined transition logic, initiating with urban centers as focus points. Before discussing his conception of transition strategy, it is important to clarify his understanding of cities and class struggle. From Henri Lefebvre’s own discussions on the right to the city, Harvey asserts (2012: xiii), “revolutionary movements frequently if not always assume an urban dimension.” He understands that the revolutionary working class is “constituted out of urban rather than exclusively factory workers” and has a distinct class formation characterized by being “fragmented and divided, multiple in its aims and needs, more often itinerant, disorganized and fluid rather than solidly implanted.” Therefore, urban social movements should not be dismissed as “simply reformist attempts to deal with specific (rather than systemic) issues” or as being “neither revolutionary nor authentic class movements” (xiii-xiv). Harvey explains the right to the city is not only the right of access to a city’s resources, but also the right to “some kind of shaping power over the process of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way” (5). In other words, we should seek “greater democratic control over the production and utilization of the surplus,” and “since the urban process is a major channel of surplus use, establishing democratic management over its urban deployment constitutes the right to the city” (Harvey 2008: 37).

The importance of urban social movements in transition strategies also follows from Harvey’s concept of accumulation by dispossession. He argues that secondary forms of exploitation “are primarily organized by merchants, landlords, and the financiers; and their effects are primarily felt in the living space, not in the factory.” Much of popular discontent originates in those practices of “accumulation by dispossession, rental appropriations, by money- and profit-gouging.” Consequently, urban social movements “typically mobilize around such questions, and they derive from the way in which the perpetuation of class power is organized around living as well as around working.” Harvey concludes that these movements “always have a class content, even when they are primarily articulated in terms of rights, citizenship, and the travails of social reproduction” (2012: 129).

In terms of linking urban movements and socialist transition, Harvey explains there has been “a long and distinguished history of ‘municipal socialism,’ and even whole phases of radical urban reform” that “need to be recuperated as central to the history both of left reformism and of more revolutionary movements” (2012: 135). Most traditional Marxists have typically disregarded municipal socialism or similar initiatives. Lenin (1972) argued it was “socialism of the most petty-bourgeois kind, one that counts on blunting the class struggle on vital issues by relegating the latter to the domain of petty questions affecting only local government.” Harvey concedes that it is “not always easy to distinguish between reformist and revolutionary initiatives in urban settings.” For example, “Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, ecologically sensitive programs in Curitiba, or living-wage campaigns in many US cities appear reformist (and marginal at that).” However, “as their influence spreads, so initiatives of this sort reveal deeper layers of possibility for more radical conceptions and actions at the metropolitan scale” (2012: 136). He makes the analogy that just as Marx depicted restrictions on the length of the working day as a first step in revolution, “so claiming back the right for everyone to live in a decent house in a decent living environment can be seen as the first step towards a more comprehensive revolutionary movement” (137).

To search for insights on how this process may develop, Harvey discusses urban movements in Bolivia, especially those in Cochabamba against the privatization of the city’s water supply and the 2003 rebellion in El Alto. An important point is that these urban movements were precisely among the factors that paved the way for the victory of Evo Morales in 2007, and seizing state power afterwards helped consolidate the power of these mostly indigenous movements (2012: 141). Harvey concludes, “any anti-capitalist drive mobilized through successive urban rebellions has to be consolidated at some point at a far higher scale of generality, lest it all lapse back at the state level into parliamentary and constitutional reformism.” He adds, “it is precisely here that the question of how one organizes a whole city becomes so crucial” for it “liberates progressive forces from being organizationally locked into the micro-level of struggling worker collectives and solidarity economies (important those these may be), and forces upon us a completely different way of both theorizing and practicing an anti-capitalist politics” (151-2). Consolidating the movement at “higher scale of generality,” or linking it to anti-capitalist struggle at the state level, is also indispensable considering that initiatives which are constrained within the city will face very similar problems to those of interstitial strategies. There is again no doubt that capital would be more than willing to use the state to eliminate an urban initiative it finds challenging.

In short, for Harvey one of our tasks is to “build the socialist city on the ruins of destructive capitalist urbanization” (2012: 153). Reclaiming and organizing cities for anti-capitalist struggles is thus a great starting point toward transition. It is clear that Harvey’s approach is one of a combined transition, integrating interstitial activities with engaging the state – not only to expand the interstices but also to initiate ruptures with capitalist institutions, starting with cities and expanding to the state as a whole. Interestingly, by focusing on cities as the starting point, his strategic conception of transition is not restricted to a particular part of the capitalist world economy. Cities in both center and periphery can serve as starting points toward transition. Thus we may imagine, in a city like New York, “the revival of the now largely somnolent community boards as neighborhood assemblies with budget-allocation powers, along with a merged Right to the City Alliance and Excluded Workers Congress agitating for greater equality in incomes and access to health care and housing provision, all coupled with a revitalized local Labor Council to try to rebuild the city and the sense of citizenship and social and environmental justice out of the wreckage being wrought by neoliberal corporatist urbanization” (151). Of course, the particular mix of the three transition logics may vary from center to periphery. In the short run, achieving control of the state or a higher proportion of ruptural processes will probably be more feasible mostly in parts of the periphery.

Precisely originating from urban movements in a peripheral capitalist country and their wave of protests known as the Caracazo, a type of combined transition strategy was initiated with the victory of Hugo Chávez in the 1998 Venezuelan elections. The Chávez government was originally not calling for socialist transition, and the radicalization of the movement was gradual. However, by September 2007, the Chávez government published a document titled “Simón Bolívar National Project-First Socialist Plan: Economic and Social Development of the Nation 2007-2013.” This report outlined how the government intended to guide Venezuela toward 21st-century socialism: “the socialist productive model will basically consist of Social Production Enterprises, which constitute the seed and path toward 21st-century socialism, even though state enterprises and private capitalist enterprises will persist.” By Social Production Enterprises they refer to “economic entities dedicated to the production of goods and services in which work has its own meaning, non-alienated and authentic, there is no social discrimination within the workplace and of any type of work, there are no privileges associated to hierarchic positions, with substantive equality among its participants, and based on participatory and protagonist planning” (Proyecto Nacional Simón Bolívar 2007: 21-2). The plan set out to construct a network of Social Production Enterprises that would “progressively compose the majority of economic activity, complementing and supporting each other for collective benefit of the community and the people as a whole.” In addition, state enterprises would eventually be transformed into Social Production Enterprises through different strategies.

As Michael Lebowitz (2006: 110) explains, “the combination of state industry and cooperatives underlies the new productive model presently envisioned for Venezuela.” It should be noted that the government had been supporting cooperatives since before the 2007-2013 Socialist Plan. Lebowitz points out “whereas only 762 cooperatives existed when Chávez was first elected in 1998, by August 2005 there were almost 84,000 cooperatives with close to one million members” (2006: 100). Unfortunately, by late 2012, many cooperatives had failed or discontinued, which in addition to their typically small scale of operation lead Lebowitz to conclude (2012a) that in general, “the most important aspect of the major cooperative initiative in Venezuela has been that the cooperatives have been a school of socialism—that is, they have given people experience in the process of making decisions themselves.” Another important issue, as Lebowitz mentions (2006: 105), is that cooperatives may perpetuate collective worker self-interest over social solidarity, “a fatal problem in the case of Yugoslav self-management.” Social Production Enterprises should “incorporate community needs and the community itself into productive activity” (109). To achieve this objective, these enterprises would develop along with communal councils, a complementary institution composed of organized communities with the political power to represent themselves in order to satisfy their own needs. Lebowitz (2012a) explains that these “communal councils come together to form communes to deal with larger problems” and that “this is a process that has been described by Chávez as one of creating the cells of a new socialist state.” The development of the communes was an integral part of the government’s strategy in late 2009 and 2010. However, in October 2012 during a televised meeting with his ministers, Chávez evidently dissatisfied asked, “Where are the communes?” as their growth and development has greatly lagged behind expectations ( 2012).

Lebowitz argues (2012b: 354), “an organic system does not drop from the sky.” When different relations coexist “there is contested reproduction,” with each system “attempting to expand at the expense of the other” (356). Therefore, combined transition strategies need what Lebowitz calls a “socialist mode of regulation,” referring to the active utilization of the state to “achieve consciously what a specifically socialist mode of production will tend to do spontaneously—ensure the reproduction of socialist relations of production.” The socialist mode of regulation must “subordinate consciously every element which supports the old society” and “create new socialist elements which can become the premises and the foundation for the new society” (358). Similarly, Chávez concluded that for the Venezuelan process to advance toward socialism much more effort has to be put toward expanding worker-managed state enterprises and deepening communal-based politics (Lebowitz 2012a). If the Venezuelan government does not become more proactive in these instances, and develop a “socialist mode of regulation,” it is possible the Venezuelan transition strategy will revert to another failed attempt of symbiotic logic like that of Brazil, Chile, or Argentina. Another possibility is that the symbiotic/interstitial logic behind the Venezuelan strategy has reached its limit, and what should follow is a phase of rupture with capitalist political and economic institutions, which are hindering the transition to socialism. After all, as Lebowitz explains (2012a), “capitalism is still present in the banking system, in large agricultural estates and especially in imports and the import-processing sector (and of course in the private mass media)” while the political system is still predominantly of a bourgeois character, plagued with corruption and clientelism.

Concluding Remarks

We have argued that the symbiotic logic of the social democratic tradition, as well as the purely interstitial logic of the anarchist and Autonomous Marxist traditions, both seem to have limited potential as vehicles for transition to socialism. It is in a combination of engaging the state to expand empowering institutions as well as to initiate ruptures with capitalist institutions that prospects for change are found. The particular mix of these transition logics will depend on conjunctural factors. However, it is likely that combined transition strategies with a higher degree of ruptural elements are more feasible in peripheral capitalism. Nonetheless, in advanced capitalist countries where access to state power is less achievable, combined transition strategies could be launched, focusing on urban movements and perhaps even engaging in local municipal politics. Similarly, much transformative work could be done in developing interstitial activities in both center and periphery, which might function as political instruments of education and agitation toward achieving state power in the middle or long run. As Lebowitz says (2012b: 364),

If crises within capitalism propel a political organization into government, it must not only … reduce capital’s power in the old state but also … foster the accelerated development of the sprouts of the new state. And, if conditions are not such as to permit a party to grasp the reins of power in the old state, then it must work to create those conditions by encouraging the autonomous development of social movements through which people can develop their powers and capacities and by building unity among them based upon recognition of difference.


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*The author would like to thank David M. Kotz for helpful comments.