The Institutions and Elements of Working Class Power

A Response to Victor Hampton’s Article

by Comrade Stella B.


“We can learn what we did not know. We are not only good at destroying the old world, we are also good at building the new.” – Mao Zedong, “Report to the Second Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China”, 1949.

In ‘Breaking the Illusion of Liberal Democracy and Building ‘Dual Power’ in the Urban Setting’ Comrade Victor Hampton raises several critical questions facing Communists today.  In order to engage and expand upon the central question of dual power this article will focus on the following three questions:

  1. What is our analysis of the capitalist superstructure and how does this analysis shape our strategy for social transformation?
  2. What is dual power? More pointedly, what are institutions of working class power?
  3. How do we use dual power as a strategy for mass organizing?

It is these three critical questions I hope to address in my response to Hampton’s timely article.

Transforming the Capitalist Superstructure

If we’re to avoid getting mired in ceaseless defensive struggles and to start building a working class movement dedicated to seizing state power, transforming the relations of production, and building a people’s democratic power – what is to be done?  What steps can we take now as Communists in our movement-building and mass organizing to start to raise the question of how the state could be transformed under socialism?  The answers to these pivotal questions must flow from our sharpest analysis of the capitalist superstructure, as only through a critical dissection of the superstructure and the state can our strategies push us forward.

A very basic conception of the superstructure is popularly illustrated as a house, where the capitalist mode of production (comprising the means of production and the relations of production) is the foundation or the basement, and the superstructure is the upper floors.

Marx describes it thus:

“In the social production of their life men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.  The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure, the real basis on which rises a legal and political superstructure” -Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Introduction

The superstructure includes the political, legal, and organizational apparatus of the state, as well as major organizational and ideological institutions such as universities, organized religion, and so on.  Gramsci described the superstructure as the ‘servant of the dominating classes’, as under the capitalist mode of production all institutions which organize modern society are controlled by and serve the interests of the capitalists.

It is important to grasp that until the mode of production is transformed to communism, it is impossible to completely transform the superstructure.  Indeed, even after a communist revolution, it will remain a challenge to transform the sum total of human society; we certainly see this in the historical lessons of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Must we wait until after the revolution to build socialist practice?  How can we struggle when we’re mired in the ideas of the enemy?

The institutions of this capitalist state exert almost total control over the minds and lives of working class people.  From the moments leading up to our conception to our last breath, we are completely immersed in and shaped by the value systems and ideas of the bourgeoisie.  How many times each day do bourgeois professionals make decisions that impact our daily lives?  How much trust do we put in the lieutenants of capital to make decisions about our finances, our health, our education, and our reproduction?  Workers sell their labour power in exchange for a wage, and the rest of our lives are handed over to bourgeois institutions: our education, our health care, and even our faith.

It was most apt that Comrade Hampton raised the question of the war of position; this is a crucial discussion.  There has been a long-standing debate amongst Left forces as to whether economic struggles at the point of production or political and ideological struggles to control and transform bourgeois superstructure and challenge bourgeois cultural and ideological hegemony take precedence.    Gramsci proposed a two-step process to smashing bourgeois hegemony and replacing it with working class power and control:  a ‘war of position’ as the working class engages the battle of ideas to build class consciousness and revolutionary organization, and the ‘war of manoeuvre’ in transforming the economic relations.

Whether we analyze that dual power and institutions of working class power are necessary to bolster the working class for the war of position or we analyze dual power as the bridge between the war of position and the war of maneuver has yet to be determined; either way I postulate that they are a primary component of a sustainable and effective offensive struggle.  Until the working class can break the illusion of bourgeois democracy and develop ideological independence, until the working class can decide as a ‘class-for-itself’ what institutional structures are necessary for organizing society to serve our needs, it will be very difficult indeed to sustain these defensive struggles and not repeat the errors of capitulation and collaboration with the bosses for the scraps of capitalism.(see Mao, On Practice)

One Divides into Two: ‘Use’ Function Versus ‘Control’ Function in the Superstructure

Hampton describes how the orientation of the state has shifted from Keynesianism to neo-liberalism in the last four decades.  Folks on the Left witness the increasing criminalization of migrants and the poor with the growth of the prison-industrial complex and the mass incarceration agenda, punitive welfare and social services policies such as prolonged wait times, and the psychiatric agenda of the pharmaceutical companies which is turning our health care system into a project to medicate the masses into compliance.  What we are witnessing is an increase in the control function of capitalist institutions, and a steady chipping away at the use function of those same institutions workers have come to rely on as a social wage.

Hampton recognizes some of the services and institutions under the capitalist superstructure will be necessary under socialism, and I agree.  It is important now more than ever that communists discuss and analyze the control function of the state down to the essence of how the superstructure serves capitalism through managing surplus labour, extracting maximum value from and super-exploiting women and migrant workers through regressive and oppressive state policies, and so on.  We must be able to engage in discussion and debate on the use function of institutions that we seek to maintain and transform versus the control function of institutions that must be done away with if we’re to give birth to a new society based on the material needs of working class communities.

Lieutenants of the Bourgeoisie: the Professionalization of ‘Use’ and ‘Control’

Finally, we’ve got to know who possesses the skills and know-how to operate major capitalist institutions and figure out how to address this major gap in working class knowledge and power.  Indispensable to any bourgeois institution are those professionals, those “lieutenants of the bourgeoisie” who provide the technical knowledge and skills necessary for the operations of major capitalist institutions (Navarro: Marxism, Radicalism, and Medicine).

Lawyers, professors, doctors, engineers, architects, technology specialists, high-level business administrators, CEOs, military officers, and high-level state bureaucrats have the specialized skills and technical know-how to manage the operations of the superstructure and maintain order within capitalist society.  Professionals exert the control function of the state through their use function.  Their highly specialized knowledge ensures a niche market for their skills.  The technical and academic language and culture which surrounds their practice effectively shuts out any opportunity for lay folks to participate in the generation of knowledge and science in the professions.  And finally, years of extremely expensive and competitive education in conservative educational institutions effectively ensures that those who reach professional stature represent the material interests of the ruling classes and remain their ideological and political lieutenants.

It is important to mention here that the bourgeois state protects the privileged position of these professionals; legislation which restricts the practice of professional skills, and professionals demand the state apply legal punitive measures for those who do not comply with professional registration.  This gate-keeping is fundamental to the protection of bourgeois domination, shutting out both the working class and ‘foreign-trained’ professionals, who are more inclined to serve the needs of community over capital.  In many liberation movements the united front struggle for a new democratic society is inclusive of progressive middle class, professional, and semi-professional elements.  This question of the role of the professional in the seizure and transformation of institutions which have essential use functions in our society is critical for communists to consider, and there are excellent examples of communist doctors and lawyers who serve the people in advanced revolutionary movements.  But this discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

What is Dual Power?  What are Institutions of Working Class Power?

“Do we want them to devote their strength to the front? If so, we must be with them, arouse their enthusiasm and initiative, be concerned with their well-being, work earnestly and sincerely in their interests and solve all their problems of production and everyday life — the problems of salt, rice, housing, clothing, childbirth, etc. If we do so, the masses will surely support us and regard the revolution as their most glorious banner, as their very life.” – Mao Zedong, “Be Concerned with the Well-being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work”

During the struggle that birthed the Soviet Union, Lenin described how, in the course of the national struggle against the Czarist regime, there was also arising another struggle within a struggle, that of the peasants and the workers against burgeoning economic and political domination by the elite, the bourgeoisie.  Lenin described this struggle within a struggle as dual power.  After walking the reader through Lenin’s definition of dual power, Hampton brings this definition down to our current context, and declares that “building dual power by way of building people’s institutions (I call them institutions of working class power) challenges the necessity and thereby legitimacy of the state, at the same time preparing the people – both ideologically and practically – to replace it” (Hampton, p. 6).

Mao said that “the enemies in the minds of the people are often more difficult to combat than the enemy himself”; we see this daily in our organizing work and in an examination of our own lives. In order to wage an effective struggle for social transformation we have got to break, even in a small fashion, the strangle-hold of bourgeois domination over our communities.   We postulate that by building democratic participation and some degree of economic control over the functioning of our communities we take giant steps towards realizing that another world is possible.  By supporting and advancing the development of working class expertise, and a new working class knowledge and science of social organization, we begin the task of realizing that world.

Build an Understanding of Institutions

Ultimately it is the institutions of capitalism that comprise this amorphous state that we struggle to seize and transform.  Hampton states, “We must continue to build the institutions among the masses that can continue their preparation for revolutionary class struggle” (p. 3).  Hampton further urges revolutionaries to move beyond the confines of the bourgeois democratic process (i.e. electoral politics) and reject the limitations on class struggle imposed by those historic forces of the working class (i.e., the labour aristocracy) who have abandoned the class struggle in favor of collaboration with the bosses.

Democracy = people power!

But a major gap in this discussion of dual power is what a Marxist definition of an institution would be. What is the difference between mass organization and institution of working class power? 

Analysing the breadth and depth of bourgeois institutional control helps Marxists distinguish between the mass organization and the institution.   Institutions structure and shape our society to perpetuate and reinforce the mode of production.  This is a different conception than the mass organization on a number of levels.

What if we were to apply an ‘I.P.O.E.’ analysis?

And here I present an initial and somewhat crude summation:

Institutions have ideological use and control functions.  Definition of ideology: a system of ideas that represent the interests of the class propagated through culture, writing, education, philosophy, theory, and explanation.   Bourgeois ideological institutions include: churches, schools, think-tanks, the family, heterosexual marriage, and cultural forms and norms such as biomedical views on medicine, a gender binary, racist views on ‘natural’ traits and much more.

Institutions have political use and control functions.  Definition of politics: the conscious, organized struggle to achieve the unity and dominance of a ‘class for itself’ (see Mao).  Bourgeois political institutions include bourgeois political parties, NGOs, certain university departments, state committees, international political agencies, and more.

Institutions have organizational use and control functions.  Definition of organization: structure designed to facilitate the process of building class unity and defending class struggle.  Bourgeois organizational institutions often overlap with political institutions, and include many arms of the state infrastructure as well as exclusive bourgeois financial organizations.

Institutions have economic use and control functions.  Definition of economics: structures erected to maximize concrete gains and control material resources.  Bourgeois economic institutions include state treasury, banks, conglomerates, trade agencies, and much more.

Institutions Meet Ideological, Political, Organizational, and Economic Structural Needs: Let’s Talk Institutions of Working Class Power!

Another essential way to analyze institutions is to break each institution down into its IPOE constituent parts.  In ‘Marxism, Radicalism, and Medicine’ Vicente Navarro does a brilliant job of breaking down the constituent elements of the bourgeois medical-industrial complex and discussing how Marxists could begin to conceptualize dual power in medicine = a pre-socialist practice to fundamentally transform medicine in the service of the people.

Institutions of working class power can include ‘serve the people’ programs, but go much further than to meet basic human needs.

Here I take a stab at a definition of an institution of working class power:

An institution of working class power is a community-owned and controlled organizational structure that meets human need and performs the necessary tasks of organizing our communities and our society while generating new values, belief-systems, knowledge, and norms from the perspective of the working class. Through the building of institutions of working class power we learn as a class how to organize our communities from the basis of justice and equality. Through these institutions working class people reclaim skills traditionally dominated by the bourgeoisie, replacing bourgeois knowledge with working class knowledge, and increasing capacity for the exercise of power through direct democratic participation. Our alternatives are a beginner’s model of the new social relations and a new society; they inspire and motivate us to struggle for a new world. 

We shouldn’t (and likely do not) have illusions that we will replace bourgeois institutions in the near future. Many of us still have bank accounts and family doctors.  But we should be brave, tireless, and relentless in our drive to move beyond our own limitations, and challenge ourselves to view our projects are the very beginnings of institutions of working class power.

Dual Power in a Mass-Based Communist Movement: a Road Map to Revolution

Lenin postulated:

“a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type … instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority the majority itself can directly fulfill all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power” (State and Revolution).

Where have such institutions of working class power taken hold?  What are some current examples to incite and inspire the power of the masses?  What are the essential elements of such projects?

The Serve the People programs of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords are common examples of oppressed and exploited communities taking strides towards institutions of working class power.   In discussing municipal state power, Hampton postulates the neighbourhood council as an institution of working class power: “the primary purpose of building neighbourhood councils should be to build alternate, organic institutions where revolutionaries can organize” (Hampton, p. 7).

But there are other examples we can look to in order to illuminate our path as we struggle to build our pre-socialist practice.  There is rich revolutionary history of dual power; from the Chinese barefoot doctors to the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution – valuable lessons await.  I am hoping that the future of our discussions on dual power can break down and dissect some of these examples for our mutual learning and development – but for now this is beyond the scope of this article.

Avoid the Trap of Economism, NGO’ism, and Charity Work

What is necessary for an effective institution to provide a useful function in our communities while remaining true to the revolutionary spirit and intention?  How can we avoid falling into the trap of economism or charity – providing handouts to the masses devoid of revolutionary methods of work, devoid of class struggle?

What could working class hegemony look like? Who gets to decide? Again let us turn to an ‘IPOE approach’:

Ideology:  institutions of working class power develop the knowledge and know-how of working class communities, support the development of advanced ideas, and advance working class hegemony.  Example: rather than simply medicating poor people, a working class health institution could develop a new framework for understanding historical trauma, oppression, and mental health, and encourage organizational activities as a new form of cognitive behavioural therapy.

Politics: institutions of working class power redefine democratic process as building popular power from below.  Rather than simply voting for delegates, popular power includes dissemination of information around important decisions, participatory decision-making processes, new methods of social organization based on common need and experience, and transparency in the political process.  Example: a neighbourhood council might host discussion circles to engage a community brain-storm, develop several possible solutions based on working class experience, and present a synthesis of popular opinion to a public forum prior to a vote on an important decision.

Organization: institutions of working class power provide avenues for the participation of all individuals, generate new roles and opportunities for the masses to participate in social production, and break the cycle of bourgeois domination of skills and expertise.  Example: a mass anti-poverty organization could request that progressive lawyers provide training for their advocates and popularize knowledge on the policy framework of social services ministries; a community-based health program could request physicians train their community health workers in important diagnostic skills.

Economics:  institutions of working class power provide material resources to individuals, communities, and the movement for social and economic transformation.  We must increase the ability and capacity of the most marginalized, oppressed, and exploited members of our society to participate to their fullest potential in our revolutionary process.  Through our economic programs we must be addressing the super-exploitation of women, people of colour communities, and migrant workers.  This necessitates that needs for childcare, food, transportation, and clothing be addressed by institutions of working class power.  This also means that methods of collectivizing economic resources must be developed.

From Here to There: Roadmaps of Revolution

I end this article with a long quote from Che Guevarra:

“In this period of the building of socialism we can see the new man and woman being born. The image is not yet completely finished – it never will be, since the process goes forward hand in hand with the development of new economic forms…

Some experiments aimed at the gradual institutionalization of the revolution have been made, but without undue haste. The greatest brake has been our fear lest any appearance of formality might separate us from the masses and from the individual, which might make us lose sight of the ultimate and more important revolutionary aspiration: to see human beings liberated from their alienation. 

Despite the lack of institutions, which must be overcome gradually, the masses are now making history as a conscious collective of individual fighting for the same cause.  The individual under socialism, despite apparent standardization, is more complete. Despite the lack of a perfect mechanism for it, the opportunities for self expression and making oneself felt in the social organism are infinitely greater.

It is still necessary to deepen conscious participation, individual and collective, in all structures of management and production, and to link this to the idea of the need for technological and ideological education, so that the individual will realize that these processes are closely interdependent and their advancement is parallel.  In this way the individual will reach total consciousness as a social being, which is equivalent to the full realization as a human creature, once the chains of alienation are broken.  This will be translated concretely into the reconquering of one’s true nature through liberated labor, and the expression of one’s own human condition through culture and art.” –Che Guevarra, Socialism and Man in Cuba, March, 1965

Comrades, I know this to be true, only by taking a giant leap towards building institutions of working class power amongst the masses can we fully integrate ourselves into the revolutionary process.  The road is long and wrought with challenges, but the liberation of self and society that Che Guevarra speaks to in his famous letter requires we face this momentous task.

Let this discussion continue, comrades.

Unidos Venceremos!

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