A series of butterfly cocoons in various stages of development

What is a Theory of change?

Thoughts on revolutionary theory, liberation, theories of change, the scientific method, and how to get to freedom, adopted from a twitter thread on the same topics.

Something I don’t see discussed enough in left spaces & made accessible to people new to theory is the concept of a “Theory of Change.” Theory of Change is the body of ideas and hypothesis’ that cover how to get from A > B, it’s the point where theory meets practice.

The first thing is that a Theory of Change (TOC) is not a theory of where you’re trying to go! For example, Marxist “pure communism” and Anarcho-communism have the same end destination, a society without Class or a State and a gift economy ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need.’ Where they differ is their theories of change – and that makes all the difference.

Marxist-Leninist Vanguardism

I’ll start with Marxist-Leninism’s TOC because it’s the one that the most people are familiar with and requires the least explanation. In this model a vanguard (defined by Lenin as a party made up of the most “advanced” segments of the Working Class) seizes the State, uses it to repress what they deem are regressive and counter-revolutionary forces, and clear the way for the creation of pure communism. Over time, the ruling party would use this dictatorship of the proletariat (since the party is made up of the most advanced segments of the working class and can therefore act in the interests of that class) to eliminate class divisions. Once class had been eliminated, the State would become unnecessary and whither away.

This TOC is undeniably strong for the first portion, seizing the State. ML vanguards have successfully seized powerin a number of countries. Even if you set aside the obvious fact that in practice “counter-revolutionary” quickly becomes shorthand for “not ok with dictatorship and gulags,” this theory of change breaks down is the second phase and never transitions to “pure communism.” As it turns out, States cannot be used to eliminate class difference because the State – by its nature – enforces divisions between those who govern and those who are governed. Many modern “Marxists” seem to have forgotten the end goal and stop at the first step, glorifying the dictatorships that Marx insisted would only every be a temporary transitional phase.

Anarchist-Communist Theories of Change

The classical (Bakunin, Kropotkin, many others) Anarchist-communist TOC was that, with enough education and agitation, a mass spontaneous global uprising would sweep away all States at once and allow working class people to spontaneously co-create the new society. This completely failed to happen.

To their credit, modern anarchist-communists have largely abandoned this TOC. Modern Anarchist TOC’s largely revolve around the idea of Dual Power, as typified by the historical spanish ConfederaciĆ³n Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), Early american Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and (to some degree) autonomist projects like the Zapatistas / EZLN in Chiapas & the Kurdish YPG in Rojava. In dual-power, oppressed people’s build counter-institutions (“new society within shell of the old”). As these institutions gain strength they can contest State and Capital’s power directly, culminating in a general strike or a guerrilla conflict that wins autonomy.

This strategy has mixed results. Ex: the anarchosyndicalist CNT seized economic power in Catalonia in 1936, but instead of seizing & abolishing the Spanish Republican state within Catalonia, allied w/ them against Franco for the sake of a united front against Fascism. They believed that since political power flowed from economic power, it was not necessary to seize the state – it would wither on its own.

They were wrong.

Instead, the Republic allied with Stalin’s Russia and promptly waged a brutal counter-revolution – anarchist militia members were literally shot in the back by their Republican and Marxist “comrades” while charging the fascist lines in one of the most brazen cases of murderous betrayal in human history. The Spanish Republic, of course, fell to the Fascists shortly afterwards, which was fine with Stalin because he has just secretly signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and was financing Russian industrialization by exporting massive amounts of oil to the fascists to fuel their war machine . But I digress.

Other examples outside the core Anarchist tradition are inconclusive. The EZLN has existed for decades now, largely because they are fortunate enough to be contesting a weak Mexican State that lacks resources for the protracted war necessary to crush them. The Kurdish YPG faces stronger foes in Turkey, which is backed by NATO, the Syrian State backed by Russia, and the Islamist fascists of Daesh/IS.

Electoral Theories of Change

A third TOC is used by Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats. They believe that by building mass working class parties (not vanguard parties), they can contest the capitalist parties via elections – not violence. Eugene Debbs is of course the most famous American example of this school if thought, while Bernie Sanders movement represents an attempt to do something more moderate within the Democratic party instead of creating a new independent labor party.

Like Marxist-Leninists, DemSocs and SocDems see the State as the vehicle for their Revolution. They’ve had good success on the first step -getting into government.. America’s two-party system makes them less viable here, but in other parts of the world these parties have been elected into power many times. The breakdown comes after gaining power – they are consistently unable to do more than reform capitalism and inevitably are coopted and move right over time. The British Labor party over the last 50 years is a case study in this tendency. Tthe result has been Capitalism with strong social safety nets, which is an improvement over the US but a far cry from the end goal those parties originally set out to achieve.

Mutualist theory of Change

A fourth theory of change is less well known. Mutualists from Proudhon to Tucker and so on believed the working class could pool our funds in credit unions, provide financing to allow workers to buy their workplaces & convert them into directly democratic cooperatives.

Over time, they believed the networks would grow & have more and more capital available to buy & convert businesses – and start new ones. In this way the economy would slowly be democratized. Since they followed Marx’s idea that political power flows from economic power, once the working class controlled the economy they believed control of governance would follow naturally and the working class would be free to abolish the hierarchal centralized State that co-evolved with Capitalism and replace it free federations based on mutually agreed upon contracts. This theory of change was actually the inspiration for the anarchist-communist dual-power approach mentioned above though and predates both Marxism and anarchist communism.

Like Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy, this approach avoids bloodshed, which I tend to think of as an advantage because most people are not murderers and are unwilling to go kill people, and folks who are willing to go people are generally not the sort of people you want in charge of your society. The difference is that where those movements seek to take over the State, Mutualism seeks to take over the economy via peaceful incremental means.

This theory of change was the starting point for the movement towards worker-owned cooperatives and has seen significant success – there are thousands of such co-ops in existence today. Stumbling blocks have been the massive institutional advantages corporations have thanks to regulatory capture, and the loss of focus typical of mass movements without strong ideological leadership. It’s possible that if the co-op movement had something like the FAI (the anti-vanguard that existed to keep the CNT anarchist) it might have kept focus better, but there’s no way to know for sure because it wasn’t tried.

Revolutionary Nationalism

The fifth TOC to have had significant currency on he left over the last 200 years is revolutionary nationalism, which focused on national liberation (typically around oppressed ethnic nations). Examples include the Irish Citizens Army, the Black Panthers, the early Chicano liberation movement, the VietCong, the early Chinese Communist Party during the years they worked in coalition with the nationalist Kuomintang, & many many others. This form of nationalism blends socialism and nationalism with the goal of setting up a new society along those lines (secession instead of revolution).

Anarchists, Marxists, & other socialists have all participated heavily in these movements all over the world… with mixed results. Where such movements successfully set up a State, those States consistently became regressive and repressed left elements as they consolidated power. Anti-Statist secessionist movements have mostly been outright crushed (ex: the Panthers) or evolved into dual-power (EZLN/YPG).

So where do we go from here?

Everything up to this point is a matter of objectively looking at the historical record to date. All of our Theories of Change have failed. Capital & State have adapted at every step. Anyone claiming to have absolute knowledge of how to succeed from here is lying.

Looking at all this history, I believe our key takeaways should be:

  1. WHERE to go & HOW to get there are different questions
  2. Conflicts between left groups are as much about HOW as WHERE
  3. A Theory of Change must go all the way to the ultimate goal to be useful, it can’t treat the revolution as a magic black box that fixes everything all at once

Revolution isn’t magic! Unsubstantiated leaps of faith like the Marxist “seize the state & repress regressive elements” magically becoming “the state withers & pure communism appears!” or the anarchist “seize the economy via dual power” magically transitioning to “States collapse!” are just fantasy and wishful thinking.

There’s a natural tendency to want to think of one set of problems at a time, but what that has means it that people have fought and struggled and died to get to the moment of revolution, and then it all fell apart. Over and over again. Our revolutionary predecessors were so focused on how to get to revolution that they didn’t plan how to get from revolution to the actual goal – a free and egalitarian society!

My personal hypothesis is that we need a hybrid of left-secessionism to break up empires, syndicalist-style dual power in existing industry to destabilize and attack the Capitalists, mutualist efforts to democratize industry and create a counter-economy owned by the working class directly, and democratic socialist-style electoral politics focused on removing barriers could be mutually reinforcing. I believe having only a single TOC and expecting it to work in isolation has been a mistake. We need everything, all at once.

I also believe very strongly that attempts to set up a revolutionary dictatorship are actively counter-revolutionary in practice because doing so requires repressing all other currents of thought that could contest your legitimacy – and to succeed we need all of those currents working together.

This hypothesis may be wrong! I am not a prophet! I am a revolutionary attempting to apply scientific principles to social questions, and in science every hypothesis must be falsifiable!

If you don’t update your hypothesis in the face of evidence, it isn’t science, it’s faith!

Whatever approaches you prefer, as revolutionaries we need to fundamentally rethink our Theories of Change and stop treating questions of tactics and strategy as matters of faith. Our proposal cannot be:
1. Organize
2. Seize the State/Economy/Both
3. ?????
4. Freedom!

The working class has fought and bled in vain too many times. We have to do better! We cannot afford wishful thinking when uncounted lives hang in the balance. We have to get it right this time.

Addendum: there are also schools of thought that do not have any theory of change. Primitivism and AntiCiv anarchism (which is not actually anarchism and bears no relationship to the theory and practice of anarchism over centuries) springs to mind. The closest they have is “wait for capitalism to collapse and learn to hunt squirrels.” Yes, I’ve actually heard AntiCiv activists advocate literally this at various conferences over the years. This is so obscenely stupid and unserious I am not willing to debate it. The same goes for the broader insurrectionist / anti-organizational tendency among some pseudo-anarchists. Politics without a meaningful theory of change is just masturbation and is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

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