Clarification of the Terms on Dual Power

by Comrade Azaad

In the past year, our organization has been working to synthesize its experiences and practice into a series of discussion documents on the question of what exactly it is we are developing in the immediate horizon, and how this relates to revolutionary strategy. Our point of convergence has been dual power.

Here, I would like to review two articles by comrades of Revolutionary Initiative on the question of dual power, and I hope, with humility, that my contribution will be to clarify and explain of few terms and concepts being used Specifically, the basis for my discussion are two articles: the first by Comrade Victor Hampton entitled “Breaking the Illusion of Liberal Democracy and Building ‘Dual Power’ in the Urban Setting” in Vol. 2 (2012) of Uprising; and the second essay is the extension of the said essay by another, Comrade Stella B. in Vol. 3 (2013), entitled “The Institutions and Elements of Working-Class Power”. First of all I want to congratulate our comrades and Revolutionary Initiative for developing further the concept of ‘dual power;. It is a bold break from the stale agit-propaganda and dogmatism of much of the left; and comes out of our important practice over the last half decade or so.

Before I start, let me explain what this essay is not about. This is not an academic exercise. It is a simple version of concepts and terms based on our very initial, though vital, practice. The actual situation is far more complex and concepts can be problematized at any level. Right now, I am isolating our attempts at dual power construction from already existing liberal-capitalist projects, institutions, and structures. In a forthcoming article, I’ll explain how ‘dual power’ interacts with already existing structures and institutions with different class bases (which is where revisionist and reformist forces spend their all their energies). Certain preexisting structures of liberal-capitalist society are important to engage in, but how and in what way? This is the topic of a forthcoming article and will address the question of alliances, the united front and other tactical issues. Right now, our practice (in our projects) is building ‘dual power’ in a way that connects peoples’ new economic/social/political structures with peoples’ institutions, giving birth to new consciousness and adding to our theory (from the masses).

Explaining the Terms: System, Structure, Superstructure, Institution, Organization, Power, Agency

 Let’s focus first on the parts of Stella’s article with the sub-titles, “Build an Understanding of Institutions” and “Institutions Meet Ideological, Political, Organizational, and Economic Structural Needs: Let’s Talk Institutions of Working Class Power.” Here Comrade Stella defines organization as “structure designed to facilitate the process of building class unity and defending class struggle.” Furthermore “Institutions have organizational use and control functions.” Then, the comrade defines an institution of working class power as “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 system, knowledge.” There are a lot of terms here: ‘institution’, ‘power’, and ‘organizational structure’ (organization and structure together). But I think it is essential to define separately the terms System, Structure, Superstructure, Institution, Organization, Power, and also human agency from a dialectical and historical materialist point of view. At a later stage I’ll try to illustrate the relation among these terms from the perspective of building dual power.

Structure & System

In its simplest expression, structures can be defined as sets of internally related objects or practices, e.g. landlord-tenant relation with private property, rent, and the production of economic surplus form a structure. Structures are not visible; we have to abstract them from concrete relations among things. The system is the reproduction of these relations between various actors or collectivities over time, organized as regular social practices, e.g. capitalist system. A social system is thus a ‘structured totality.’ When structures create recurrent social practices as an interdependent relation between individuals or groups, we see them as social systems.

Very important to note is that a structure occupies a level of reality below surface appearances. The terms system and structure overlap, but a system defines a characteristic of structure. When a social system exists through time and flows during social interaction it acquires structural properties, but they are not structures in themselves. The identification of structure should not be the only aim of sociological investigation (for academic purposes) and social investigation (for more in terms of political practice) but how structures work for the reproduction of social systems as a medium and as an outcome, that is, reproduction in the super-structural layer which we’ll define soon.


The most deeply-layered practices constitutive of social systems in each of these senses are institutions. In a simple way, we can say institutions as the ‘rules of the game’ as deeply-layered social practices. There are formal rules (liberal democracy) and informal rules, like aspects of culture.


Organizations consist of groups of individuals bound together by some common objectives. Firms, trade unions, co-operatives are examples of economic organizations; political parties are the organizations of classes; the Senate is an organizational part of the State; religious bodies, sports clubs, are examples of social organizations. For example hockey is an institution in terms of the rules of game and how to play; but hockey teams are organizations, as are the leagues in which they play. Similarly liberal democracy is an institution, that is, how to elect a government and run it. But the conservative, liberal and social democratic parties are all organizations.


Power connects institutions and structures. It is a relational concept. Liberals look at power as a capability of an actor to achieve his will at the expense of resistance of others (Max Weber); or as a property of collectivity (Parsons). But the analysis starts from individual to collective. On the other hand, Marxists treat power as the property of a social group and a medium where class and common interests are realized. The ability to exercise power within a given set of institutions and structures depends on the variable access to resources of different social groups within those institutions and their associated structures. So in a capitalist system, when power connects its structure and institutions, different classes have different resources and therefore different transformative capacities and ability to exercise their domination. Capitalists and the working class have unequal resources that they bring to bear within the institutions of liberal-democratic society. That is why capitalist maintain their domination in this system. When this domination is routine and a social practice then we can say that capitalism is a system.

Individual Agency

The way I have ‘mechanically’ connected all the above concepts could lead to the accusation that I have ignored ‘human agency’ in it all – like the disappearance of the subject or the end of the individual. I’ll try to explain the individual in it without lapsing into subjectivism. Also, I do not want to exclude the unconscious drives and motives, but want to explain that the unconscious can only be explored in relation to the consciousness.

The conscious level of thought is the reflexive monitoring and rationalization of conduct, which is grounded in practical consciousness. Action or agency is not a series of discrete acts combined together but a continuous flow of conduct (In our case not piecemeal struggles but an organized struggle). Individual actions and structures presuppose one another, and the relation between them is a dialectical one.

Defining agency like this, two points follow based on the foregoing analysis:

(1) Structures or structural analysis does not mean disappearance of agency, but rather points us in the direction of how the collection of individual agencies can be organized to break the capitalists structure and make a structure. The protracted co-existence of two structures is what we call dual power – a situation that will exist in the lead up to a revolution.

(2) Agency/action described like so is not random, unconscious, or a bunch of angry individuals. Rather it must be a self-conscious collective being with organized and coherent thought and rationality having a continuous flow of conduct.

Building the “working class” expertise: Distinguishing between structure and superstructure

On Page 3-4 in Stella’s essay in Volume 3. of Uprising, in the section “Transforming the Capitalist Superstructure”, we need to make a distinction between structure and superstructure. It should be connected with the following sections, “One Divides into Two: ‘Use Function’ versus ‘Control Function’ in the Superstructure” and “Lieutenants of the Bourgeoisie: the Professionalization of ‘Use’ and ‘Control’.” Here we deal with expertise knowledge. So the conclusion of this part is that we need to build the working class expertise, and a new working class knowledge and science of social organization” [p.5, end of middle column].

First, let me separate structure and superstructure. Institutions as defined above are superstructural. An example of a formal institution would be liberal democracy and informal institutions would be cultural practices. These institutions also include ideology and consciousness.

In Revolutionary Initiative, we tend to organize our plans, actions, and assessments in Ideological, Political, Organizational and Economic terms, and we have tended to do this somewhat unconscious of how these terms relate to structure and superstructure. Without this clarification, we cannot have any sense of priority, order, or relationship amongst these various categories. Let me explain the capitalist system and some of the concepts above through our IPOE approach (See Figure 1).

Figure 1In capitalism, the category Ideological consists aspects individualism, consumerism, racism, etc. Political aspects of capitalism include liberal democracy. Power connects ideology and politics through the organization of capitalists (political parties), as well as through other organizations of the capitalists, like NGOs, corporations and capitalists (see top to bottom of Figure 1.). They have corporations, NGOs, and charities as their mass organizations, and their political organizations are their parties, like conservative and liberal parties, who actually run liberal democracy. They are responsible for the promotion of bourgeois freedoms and rights, as the ideological forms of individualism, etc. (see from bottom to top of Figure 1).

Politics happens in the visible and concrete aspects of the superstructure, and lieutenants of the bourgeoisie use these to control us. When comrade Stella talks about them it simply means all types of knowledge forms. We need to define politics”. What is politics? I would define it as the contestation of power – a power struggle. What we see in bourgeois politics is a combination power struggle within the bourgeois class, and against the subaltern classes.

We should remember that current mainstream theory of liberal legalism is new institutionalism, which insists on stability of institutions like liberal democracy. It does not even think about structures. In mainstream liberal politics and activism, we often hear terms like good governance’, ‘flexibility’, ‘improve participation’, ‘foster experimentation and deliberation’, ‘complex multi-level systems,’ ‘bottom-up approaches,’ ‘use of soft law along with hard law,’ ‘lawlike processes,’ ‘opportunity structures,’ participatory development,’ etc. These are all different forms of institutional arrangements (rules of game) within the capitalism system aimed at reproducing the same structure. All above terms are forms of expertise knowledge produce by “lieutenants of the bourgeoisie” to exercise a control function over themasses from within the superstructure. The working class also participates in these institutions (politics) but they have unequal resources (power) and hence always lose. All institutionalist explanations in a capitalist structure are meant to reinforced the position of the dominant class, and leave silent thequestion of the working class.

Figure 2Comrade Stella emphasizes the need to build “working class expertise, a new working class knowledge, and science of social organization.” But is she referring to the pre-existing superstructural elements of bourgeois society? No. She is referring to a proletarian revolutionary ideology, politics, organization, and to the extent that we can prior to a structural transformation of society, economics. What is this? See Fig 2 for concepts of system, structure, superstructure, institutions, and agency in our conception of building dual power. Ideologically, we stand for ideology of collectivism amongst the masses, sacrifice and solidarity. As opposed to consumerism, we stand preserving the resources of earth and their sustainable collective use. For this we believe in a new democracy or socialist democracy in either case a politics on its way to communism, which must be led by a working class party (Clandestine or open depending upon the stage of struggle). At the level of organization, we must build a party that works with the masses through our mass organizations that defend the rights and welfare of the people and bring them into a power struggle with their class enemies. In practice, when we build a serve-the-people project, it means we are building a new economic structure where working class collectively manages its economic problems. When we do this we are devising new rules of the game (institution), which are different than how peoples needs are met (or not met) under capitalism. We develop a new knowledge of managing the affairs of the people. We build a totally new consciousness (ideology) of working class – on that is collective. In this way the working class acquires a new capability (power) which connects their structure with their institutions. This is a situation of dual power.

This approach to building revolutionary power can be accused of economism, NGOism, and charity work, like a liberal project. But Comrade Stella is aware of this and immediately explains the difference.

Liberal Projects of Charity vs ‘Dual Power’ Projects

How are such community projects and mass organizations any different from liberal projects? The answer to this question is found in the following part of Stella B’s article, “Avoid the Trap of Economism, NGOism, and Charity Work.” Here are my thoughts:

(1) Liberal projects are based on individuals helping others on a piecemeal basis, such as a human rights case, taking up a deportation case, helping a worker, etc. and doing so under the pretense of liberal democratic society. As opposed to this, our projects are collective efforts and are geared towards building organizations in a coherent fashion that can lead to a contestation of power (politics).

(2) In liberal projects, assistance often comes from state, or at least refuses to challenge the state. Elite individual charity foundations funded by corporations actively hinder the capacity of collective initiative on the part of the people. As opposed to this, in our efforts the people themselves build their projects. In these projects, much of the resources and capacity are mobilized from within the community itself. This way people build their collective capacity, in which individual is able to flourish.

(3) Mutual-aid cooperatives that refuse to move beyond legal structures only reinforce the capitalist system. As opposed to this, our projects aim to constitute power structures that are not completely reliant upon the capitalist system, in preparation for revolutionary struggle. It is different than cooperatives of utopian socialists for correcting the capitalist system within or transition to socialism as is in social democracy.

Fig 3(4) In liberal projects, first they want to disarm you from your politics. They start from depoliticization, dispersion, fragmentation and difference. If you talk to liberals about anti-imperialism, they will start insisting there is women’s issue, race, gender, that is completely distinct from imperialism. Focus is dispersed and dispersed forces have no power to effectively assert themselves [See Fig 3]. However, in our projects, we follow the bottom-up IPOE. We first talk about women’s issues, workers, peasants, urban poor etc. then we connect it with a critique of existing bourgeoisie institutions and organizations, and convince the people how they are unable to solve their issues in a dispersed way. Then we push all struggles against imperialism in a pincer movement that is focused [Fig 4].Figure 4 Mass Orgs

(5) Our projects are aimed not merely at changing consciousness (superstructure) first, which is how poststructuralist discourse analysis, critical legal studies, subaltern studies see things. Rather, ours is to build a new structure, that will slowly give rise to new institutions (as rules of the game), and a dual power that will connect our new structures with institutions in opposition to our class enemy and its institutions and organizations. While doing this a new consciousness and ideology will emerge.

Let us make it clear here that we need to build structure first and then there will emerge related institutions and consequent consciousness. Actually they are happening at the same time. Our projects are not simply consciousness-raising exercises (like petty-bourgeois projects of reforms are often based around), but aimed at creating new structures.

(6) Here when I say institutions, I am now talking about ‘New Institutions.’ ‘New formal’ institutions in the sense of how we run projects economically and lay down our organizational rules; and by ‘New informal,’ I mean a new culture of socialist camaraderie and solidarity.

Figure 5Connecting a project, mass organization, party and Ideology-Consciousness

In our efforts to organize the people and meet their needs, we often start with social investigation among vast masses, where we take ideas and concerns from the masses. In doing this, people tell us about their economic and social issues. We ask them or try to understand which problems are most urgent to solve first. Then we help them plan some economic/social projects. This is E in our IPOE – the economic. Based on this, people (we with them) organize and make a mass organization, with some voluntary flexible rules. We should avoid two extremes in our mass work, which is tailsim and vanguardism. During organizing the masses, some people try to proceed immediately to form parties with stricter rules than the masses are able to handle without being disciplined and trained in mass organizations. What is distilled through the process of building such mass organizations is ideology, which through a party formation we can bring back to the masses [See Fig 5].

Let me illustrate this process with the example of a cop watch project or community self-policing. We, being the part of community, are facing this problem and this comes directly out of social investigation. People will ask first for legal help/advice within the system [A liberal project will stop here and confine itself to this]. We slowly will come to know that this is a vicious circle and may proceed to encourage and assist with the creation of parent councils and community councils to keep an eye out for the cops [A liberal project will convince the people how should obey law and partake in some friendly games with police]. By systematizing people’s experiences and encouraging organization, we can convince the community to keep an eye on police harassment and slowly build their capacity not to involve police.

Figure 6This will result in mass organization. This mass organization will create a space where we can talk about new laws and new political change and new constitutional rights. In a way we can build our new expertise and institutions where we can have collective policing of future. Through a process like this, we can build the people’s consciousness alongside and within new structures that can increase our power against our class enemies.

I hope this helps clarify some of the terms we need to understand in constructing dual power. More to follow.

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