Reviewed by Adrian Kreutz
In the early 1900s the (arguably short-lived) Japanese socialist newspaper Heimin Shimbun was asking its readers to share their reasons for becoming socialists (Tireney, 2015). They received a staggering 78 contributions. Univocally, the answers fell into either or both of the following categories: (A) ‘Because I had formative experiences with being exploited, being treated unjustly, or being discriminated’, or (B) ‘Because of the social movement I was participating in’ (which didn’t necessarily mean a socialist movement). Many things have been said about (A), too many perhaps, but only relatively recently has the academic discourse picked up on (B).
Raekstad and Gradin take the idea seriously that the social nexus you inhabit (the social movement you are part of, for instance) not only determines vastly your attitude towards reality as it reveals itself today, but also your attitude towards how reality could tomorrow be different. The idea has profound political ramifications. It requires the infrangible optimists among us to take seriously Gandhi’s by now almost hackneyed slogan ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. It requires of us, those convinced that a better world is possible, to practice prefigurative politics: ‘the deliberate experimental implementation of desired future social relations and practices in the here-and-now.’ (10)
Prefigurative Politics, or prefigurativism, is a way of engaging in social change activism that seeks to bring about this other world by means of “planting the seeds of the society of the future in the soil of today’s” (3). For Raekstand and Gradin, this other world is a radically democratic egalitarian socialist world in which the rifts between the public and private spheres have finally flattened out completely. Prefigurativism is a way of showing what a world without the tyranny of the present might look like. It is a way of finding hope (but not escapism!) in the realms of possibility––something that words and theories alone cannot provide. Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today is the first comprehensive book-length publication dedicated entirely to the idea of prefigurativism. Due to a lack of explicit academic attention so far, neither the arguments for prefigurativism, nor against it have been fully worked-out and well-understood. Raekstad and Gradin offer the systematic treatment that has long been due.
As a form of activism, prefigurativism highlights the idea that your means match the ends you can expect. It highlights that social structures enacted in the here-and-now in the small confines of our organisations, institutions and rituals mirror the wider social structures we can expect to see in the post-revolutionary future (ideas worked out in chapters 1 & 2). As such, it is very close to other concepts within the broader socialist universe. Bloch’s ‘Concrete Utopia’ and Wright’s ‘Lifestyle Politics’ spring to mind. The socialist strategy of finding niches and cracks within the capitalist system, and to build alternative subcommunities within it, by changing individualistic behaviors and choices, is well known, but also heavily criticized in inner-left debates. Is ‘opting-out’ really an anti-capitalist strategy? The line between strategy and hedonistic escapism is, in any case, blurry. There are many already established forms of strategies and theories in this vein that Raekstad and Gradin could have done more to distinguish prefigurative politics from.
From a hands-on perspective, prefigurative politics entails that if you desire an anti-hierarchical society (that’s the optimist’s impetus) you first have to build a non-hierarchical movement yourself (that’s the Gandhian part). If that worked out well, then you can expand outwards. Prefigurativism is thus, as the Average White Band funk classic says, about ‘picking up the pieces’ yourself, not expecting your enemy(ies) to spontaneously become benign. The way I read it, Raekstad and Gardin’s definition of prefigurativism is built on three distinctive, albeit intertwined, conceptual cornerstones: reformism, intersectionality, and post-structuralism. Let’s go through them in turn.
Raekstad and Gradin’s proposal is Marxist to the extent that the struggle for universal human self-emancipation is central to Marxism. On the Marxist side, they argue, Gramsci and Luxemburg have been the most prominent advocates of prefigurativism. Gramsci’s ideas on the party structure do indeed indicate his sympathy for prefigurative politics, but with respect to Luxemburg, I am a bit skeptical that this is something that she achieves. The the view of revolution Raekstad and Gardin regard most conductive to prefigurativism is a reformist one resting on mass organisation and incremental changes––and if someone isn’t a reformist, it is Luxemburg (a discussion of this can be found littered throughout the book).
What is the relation between prefigurativism, reformism and revolution? ‘[R]evolution is the task of radical movements from below’ (58), say Raekstad & Gradin. Radical movements ‘must struggle for and win smaller changes in the short term and large-scale revolution in the long term.’ (58) Raekstad and Gradin are right, reformism seems to require prefigurativism––a reform is like placing a piecemeal prefiguration into the belly of the beast––but the converse is not obviously the case. In fact, I don’t see a blatant contradiction between prefigurativism and, say, the crack-in-the-pearl view of revolution backed by insurrectionist anarchists, for instance. A Leninist big-bang coup, however, is ruled out by Raekstad and Gradin’s commitment to the personal being political, as disclosed below. In any case, I take it that a commitment to the reformist view which disqualifies Luxemburg as a forerunner of prefigurativism of Raekstad and Gradin’s couleur.
A diverse group which takes equality as its manifest value isn’t really egalitarian if the white men within this group meet up to discuss equal pay and anti-discrimination policy while the women do the dishes. Formal equality is not enough, say Raekstad and Gradin (see chapter 5). Prefigurative movements also need to pay attention to the ways in which social norms, roles, and values affect people in their self-conception and actual scope of action. The victories of the twentieth century (women suffrage, gay marriage, civil rights for people of colour, sick leave, and weekends), Raekstad and Gradin argue, are the result of activist reconstruction and prefiguration, not of mere resistance as it is sometimes put. Many activist groups desire a radical reshaping of the dominant social relations and concepts of gender, class, nationality, ability, ethnicity, and race (determined by capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism). The desire to reshape takes prefigurativism beyond mere resistance, for resistance implies taking for granted the status quo as something firm that is to be resisted. Prefigurativism is not about pretending that inequalities are, in some metaphysical sense, ‘just not there’, as in people claiming to ‘just not see class’, or to ‘just not see race’, but to dismantle and replace those inequalities with genuine egalitarian practice.
With activism came a better understanding of how power and social structures work and how stubborn they are. An awareness of the fact that how one is affected by them differs from person to person, forms of oppression intersect, and therefore struggles have to be synthesised and carried in unison. When the New Left became increasingly aware of feminism, and feminism increasingly aware of the New Left in the 1960s and the 1970s, criticism of the vanguard assumption that rational thought, strategy and personal experience of the elite leader sufficiently overlap, became louder. Sheila Rowbotham (2013), for instance, criticized Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist organisations for being mistaken about conceiving of revolutionary theory as some form of objective yet gnostic secret science that can very well be detached from the reality of political struggle––a gnostic secret science to the extent that the leaders of those vanguard associations claim authority of their own understanding of and exclusive epistemic access to the inequalities within society and what is needed to dismantle and replace them. As such, revolutionary theory becomes a technocratic practice placing power in the hands of a few epistemically “gifted”, which makes it incompatible with an intersectional approach to prefigurative politics.
Raekstad and Gradin replace the vanguard model of power with a post-structuralist approach that takes power to be capillary, already situated in the social world more broadly (this is addressed in chapters 5, 6 & 7). The thought is that social movements, reading groups, trade unions, prisons, kindergartens and yoga ashrams all have their unique power-structures. The differences in distinct power-structures matters in so far as they mirror the worlds those institutions may prefigure. In the struggle for a pluralistic, free, equal and fully democratic society, those organisations have to join forces, each contributing with their unique understanding of power to the greater end. Prefigurativism thus bears the potential to bring different social movements, activist groups and even other communities closer together, united by both their means and ends.
The definition of prefigurativism given by Raekstad and Gradin is sufficiently broad to invite all sorts of, first and foremost, leftist host ideologies––from anarchism to anti-racism and feminism––to join in for the one big project of universal human self-emancipation. This is not to say that the domain of prefigurative politics is occupied exclusively by the Left––although it can be seen as an effort to rescue ‘identity politics’ from being abused by the Right. Prefigurative activism doesn’t have to be overtly leftist. Raekstad and Gradin do not discuss this explicitly, but things like animal rights and liberation activist organisations, climate change activism, maybe even a yoga ashram (as far as it is distinct from of human interaction), could profit from prefigurativism. I say these forms of activism are not overtly leftist, although they are probably leftist, at least in a minimal sense. But what about right-wing activism? Raekstand and Gradin argue that right-wing prefigurativism is oxymoronic in that it is likely to fail what we may want to call the ‘experimentality desideratum’ internal to their definition of prefigurative politics. This is to say that prefigurativism is always about experimenting with a new form of social interaction. The case is intuitive: with past and present society already being “right” nobody needs to make experiments to see what such a right-leaning society might look like––we are already a part of it. However, this seems to equate ‘right’ with either conservatism or reactionism, which doesn’t seem correct per se, especially not in the context of the contemporary far-right. Neo-fascist far-right social centers such as CasaPound Italia or the French Bastion Social desire to present a novel interpretation of fascism beyond the right-left dichotomy, occupying what they call an ‘extreme-upper-center’. What they do, amongst their own ranks, is to prefigure this form of a desired neo-fascist society. Therefore, I would argue there is such a thing as far-right prefigurativism, and it is being practiced.
Prefigurative Politics is a wonderful and timely contribution to the growing literature on (socialist) activist strategy. Both authors draw extensively on their own experiences with activism and their academic research. The occasional personal anecdote about life as an activist and political educator gives the book a certain kind of cogency which the usual scattering of mere second-hand lore doesn’t. Their writing is clear, lucid and comes without the unnecessarily pompous jargon of much of present and past political theory. At points their writing even has the clout of a political pamphlet, in a good sense. Everyone interested in left-activism or simply longing for a better future should read Prefigurative Politics.
30 March 2020
- 2015 Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kotoku Shusui and Japan's First Anti-Imperialist Movement Oakland, CA: University of California Press
- 2013 The Women's Movement and Organising for Socialism Rowbothan, S., Segal, L., Wainwright, H. (eds.). Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (3rd Edition). Pontypool: Merlin Press.