Toward Building Tomorrow: Expertise and Dual Power

C.D. Varn considers the strengths and limitations of a modern conception of dual power for the revolutionary movement

Building institutions of the class

Revolutionary socialist parties, whether they be classed-based or driven by other means of alignment, have often had trouble functioning in the parliamentary and Anglo-American context if they also engaged in dual power strategies. The reasons for this are not immediately clear, but can become illuminated by looking at the history of the term, and its particular relationship to working class parties, and then we may look at the problems it poses in a modern context.

What is Dual Power? 

Dual power is a strategy that is oft cited and misunderstood in the context of socialism and anarchism, but it is a framework shared by both as well as religious parties in the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah.1  Murray Bookchin points out that this conception of clubs and societies as a means of achieving power was first formulated by implication by the French mutualist Proudhon: “Proudhon made the bright suggestion, in his periodical Le représentant du peuple (April 28, 1848), that the mass democracy of the clubs could become a popular forum where the social agenda of the revolution could be prepared for use by the Constituent Assembly—a proposal that would essentially have defused the potency of the clubs as a potentially rebellious dual power.”2  This focus on institutions outside of the state, like mutual aid societies and early credit unions, had limitations but could be used both as a transitional model for changing value relations and as means of maintaining revolutionary movements.  This, however, was clarified in the context of the Russian soviet by Lenin who formalized what had been nascent in practice in historical revolutionary movements going back to the English Civil War’s Protestant associations and implied in mutualist writers like Proudhon during and after the French revolution.

Lenin’s use here was clear:

“What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America.

This circumstance often over looked, often not given enough thought, yet it is the crux of the matter. This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. The fundamental   characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizure”, to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service”, whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.”3


One can quickly see that codification clarifies that the function of the soviet in Dual Power is to assume functions of the state in crisis in Lenin’s view. The soviet as it existed after the February Revolution in Russia had developed out of particular collective ownership of land and an answer to serfdom before a strong industrial proletariat had grown up. This rule of councils was hardly unique, as other para-state organizations existed prior to the development of liberal democracy, but the idea that these were beyond guilds or were limited to one or two social classes, but not specific trades, was new and largely unique to the Russian experience. However, the point of such para-state institutions was to divorce the community from dependence upon the semi-feudal or early bourgeois state in Russia. One notices immediately that the context is limited to a state in particular condition.

This this conception of dual power seems hardly applicable to the situation of North America or Western Europe. Indeed, its success beyond the early Soviet experience on the model limited in applicability beyond parties in failed states, often after sectarian conflict in the recently liberated colonies and where such states have a power vacuum due to said conflict. Furthermore, beyond the Soviet model, most uses of Leninist conceptions of dual power have been necessarily class collaborationist because the material means to support the party must come from the religious community and fairly rich patrons.

Yet it is clear that Lenin’s means of achieving dual power can be extrapolated from and built upon in the Euro-American context if we realize a few key points: the Anglo-American tradition of parties is dramatically different from the conception of parties around worker’s movements.  In the Anglophone world parties are parliamentary sorters that have low bars to entry and few para-state functions. Membership is easy because it mainly ideological and requires donations to fund a professional class whose job it is to mobilize votes.  This is dramatically different from the Social Democratic parties developing out of the First International, where more functions are assigned to the party, including benevolent societies, schools, and even sports leagues. For the five hundred years of the Anglo-American parliamentary tradition, parties have never served those functions.  Furthermore, while the neoliberal state has atomized and privatized some of the functions of state, those functions still exist with a relationship to tax revenue in a mystified way.

So we must return to other conceptions of dual power aid in our work. In anarchist literature, there are a myriad of conceptions from worker cooperatives, autonomous zones, libertarian municipalism, intentional community, cooperative federations, etc. However, these miss the aid of radicalization to support a power base outside of the state, or if they do address that concern, do so solely on a regional or municipal level. However, if communism can’t exist just within one multiethnic country like Russia or China, then there is definitely no reason to think it could exist effectively on the scale of a series of confederated city quasi-states.  Furthermore, many of these conceptions—autonomous zones, intentional communities, municipalism—do not so much create dual power as they do outlets away from state power, and thus are actually retreats.

Part of the problem is that the focus on dual power institutions, particularly after Gramsci, has been on ideological monopolies from state and capitalist institutions. This is important, but it is not the primary reason why a party should engage building para-state institutions either within its own apparatus or in conjunction with other aligned socialist parties and groups within the various strains of the working class. The primary reason is practical.

Why an expanded conception of dual power is important for expertise

One of the primary problems of organizing and retention in socialist parties is based on simple material facts.  The ideological conception of parties in the Anglo-American tradition (and actually in almost all of capitalist Western Europe after World War 2) sees social welfare as province of the state or charitable institutions. Parties in these bourgeois-democratic republics may funnel money into think tanks and NGOs or even may even support Unions—although the opposite is by far the more likely scenario—these institutions to not meet the material needs of most people, mostly especially people with children.  Therefore parties that require a deeper investment than those parliamentary parties have not been about to recruit much beyond people who work in intellectual fields with larger labor, students,  and people without children.

Since while the above can be part of the working class legitimately, it is not a criticism to say the membership is unrepresentative of the working class. The problem again is more immediate and less theoretical:  they will tend to phase out participation as they become invested in careers and other necessary activities to survive in capitalism.  This is even more true of people in more imperiled communities.  To keep people with skills and experience of diverse sections of the working class in a party, we must deliver material needs to them in the form of childcare, job skills, new ways of organizing labor, and social outlets. This enable people beyond their student years to contribute to the party while providing a base of people with knowledge necessary to help build socialist alternatives to capital and to broaden our own sets of expertise.

What no party should want is the standard micro-party model: academics leading coteries of students since the unions are largely no longer involved and working people in retail, logistics, and manufacturing are largely our of purview. In an age where lots of the working class has opted out of electoral politics entirely, this is increasingly vital.

These para-state institutions also can serve as a check on elements of the party itself and act as a means of making the party accountable to a larger sub-section of the working class and allowing the space for real conflicts between socialists and workers to be worked out honestly.  Centralism is born out of common goals and creations as much as ideological coherence. While older Marxist parties realized this, increasingly in the development world the lack of common tangible projects make a diverse socialist movement difficult not to become schismatic and even talks about “real movement” because almost phantoms and empty signifiers as no one shares a definition of what a real movement is.  In this way, dual power practices build concrete and diverse commitment allowing a space for people to come together against alienated and atomized community life while also producing parts of a larger socialist project.

In short, by using the expertise of people within our project to meet their needs now, we also increase our ability to think beyond the current movement and retain expertise.  We do not need to continue largely purely cadre models which tend to have one older members as a leader, generally an academic with a few younger academics as lieutenants with students as cadres producing newsletters to raise consciousness for a nearly eschatological “real movement.”  We must have concrete projects now to build institutions for the future.

Furthermore, this expertise would be necessary for any stop in production in either a revolutionary moment or even a prolonged strike while in electoral opposition or out of government.

Some Limitations and Criticism of This More Practical Model From History 

One lesson that can be taken is from Swedish Social Democratic organizing in the 1960s and 1970s.  Fully adopting this more civic notion of dual power, the Swedish Social Democrats turned to the same neo-Keynesianism that dominated a lot of the post 1950s European Social Democratic parties but it did not embrace same welfare state alone model4.   Elements of the Social Democratic party continued para-state organizations of woman’s centers, party paid daycare, health clinics, etc, which let the party to become the biggest party in the country when it worked in conjunction with unions.  However, when it became the dominant ruling party in the 1980s, both the unions and the dual power functions were largely subordinated to the state itself and folded into the welfare state. The nature of the state was both national and capitalistic and thus once power was achieved by the dual power function remained limited in its aid and largely subsumed into capitalist welfare state. Furthermore, this electoral victory was still in a national context, limiting any attempt to change the realm of value production overall, leaving the welfare state and the prior dual power institutions dependent on profits for tax revenues and international trade to maintain operations.

Other models include the Muslim Brotherhood—which particularly under the austerity regimes of Sadat and early Mubarak—ran most of the social services in Egypt outside of the state apparatus. However, there are many limitations to be considered here:  the brotherhood’s paths to power was not enabled except in crisis in the places where it’s dual power strategy has worked.  This was true both in the Palestinian and the Arab Spring situations. In addition, the sources of funding for the projects often came from rich donors with religious motivations for contributing, a luxury no Marxist left-wing party would have. However, much can be studied about the international cooperation between various nation branches of the Brotherhood, a feat not achieved on the left since the early Soviet period and specifically in the “international” context of the late Russian Empire.

In lieu of class collaborative donors, many left groups have used “lumpen” methods such as engaging in the illicit drug trade and profiting off of vulnerable demographics themselves. This can be seen, for example, in the FARC’s (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) funding of its operations—both militarily and as dual power outreach—on narco trafficking and kidnapping. It is important to know history of the FARC-EP relationship to the Columbian Communist Party (PCC) and it’s dual power oriented militias and self-defense leagues.

As the PCC faded, funding methods for the services and prolonged guerrilla were based on the dual power model but required income beyond while the institutional PCC could provide. Thus the reliance on illicit trade for fundings.  This influx is deleterious to left-wing organizing.  The use of lumpen funding was also attempted by Islamist parties who used similar methods class-collaboratively such as the Taliban.  Both these names obviously invoke the fear of terrorism in people who know them, and as their involvement in insurgent wars increased, and their involvement the drug trade increased, the popular base decreased and openness to attacks by right wing counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic agents increased as well.  This lead to increased paranoia within the group and contributed to violence against non-combatants of the peasant and working classes.  This is obviously disastrous as a model.


While dual power is no panacea and there are good reasons to limit its use within a party as it could easily overwhelm all other finds, the need to expand the kinds of members within the party as well  as cultivating expertise types of expertise and institutional accountability checks make these para-state organizations worth pursuing. The limitations of funding and scope must be considered:  there are small models for success regionally in the US currently existing. The Philly Socialist organization, for example, has run many programs that they see as helping to train organizers instead of mere activists and have increased and diversified their membership beyond the normal left group’s diet of students, academics, and the self-employed. They have also maintained a scale and a kind of service that does not require massive capital inflows.  However, it is unclear if this regional model scales up to overcome some the historical hurdles. It is paramount that we aim to see if it can in order to see if this kind dual power can be expanded beyond the historical context of the Soviets after the February revolution, and its use for anarchist models of social organization.



1. Tamari, Rema (2000), The PNA versus Hamas: the situation of dual power in a context of state building without sovereignty.

2. Bookchin, Murray (1996), The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era, Volume 2, A&C Black, p. 115

3. Bernard, Isaacs, trans. (1964) The Dual Power, Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 24, pages 38-41.