From countervailing power to dual power

The sixth part in the series Ecosocialist Strategies in the Anthropocene by Christian Zeller.


After explaining the need for a revolutionary ecosocialist perspective in the fourth article of this series, and concretising it in the fifth article with a proposal for a programmatic orientation towards transitional demands and a practical orientation towards processes of social appropriation, in this article I deal with the tension between power, counter-power and dual power. In view of the urgency of the global ecological and social crisis, I argue for taking up the experiences and concepts of dual power and developing them anew to meet current challenges. I argue for starting a debate on strategic options for building social counter-power beyond the assumption of governmental responsibility in bourgeois governments.

Strategic poverty and subordination to capitalist constraints

The climate movement has so far mostly limited itself to demanding effective measures from governments against global warming. Concrete resistance against lignite and the emerging movement for a mobility turnaround go beyond this and try out steps of self-empowerment. Left parties present themselves as substitutes who advocate that in parliaments or even in governments, one or the other reform is passed to improve the situation. It is obvious that neither the political self-restraint of movements nor the political substitutionalism and conformity in the professional political arena contribute to shifting the balance of power substantially in a way that opens options for social change. What is needed is to start a discussion on how to obtain social and political power. So far, the ideas about this challenge have been characterised by remarkable strategic poverty.

On the one hand, there is the constantly repeated dream of realising a social-ecological reform programme through participation in governments. The experience of “left governments” is sobering. The PS-PC government under President Mitterrand in France 1981-84, the Gauche Plurielle of PS, PC and Greens with Lionel Jospin as prime minister under President Chirac 1997-2002, the participation of Rifondazione Comunista in a left-bourgeois government 2006-2008 in Italy, the Syriza government 2015-2019 (temporarily in a coalition with the right-wing ANEL party) and the current PSOE-Podemos government in Spain have all resulted in terrible defeats and the long-lasting demoralisation of activists in social movements.

In part, this process has even been associated with an enduring fragmentation and marginalisation of socialist and anti-capitalist forces. In Germany, the SPD-Green government with chancellor Schröder and foreign minister Fischer, 1998-2005, pushed through comprehensive favours for finance capital as well as cuts in social services to liberalise labour markets, enforcing the biggest wage reductions since World War II.

The leadership of DIE LINKE and of similar parties in Europe continue this illusionary dream unperturbed. Marxist intellectuals even want to pick up the tradition of so-called Eurocommunism of the 1970s with its orientation towards reform governments, which should have been based on broad anti-monopolistic alliances. They justify this in a richly detached and unrealistic way using the state theory of Nicos Poulantzas, who argued for a long-term and continuous transformation of the state through ever greater participation of the popular masses. A government supported by a broad anti-monopolist alliance would slowly transform the state, making concessions to the capitalist classes to ensure that they did not frontally oppose the process. This strategy already overestimated the possibilities of transforming the bourgeois state and the “willingness to negotiate” of the capitalist classes in the 1970s. But in view of the current contradictions and ecological urgency, the approach seems rather unworldly.

The current situation is different from that of the 1970s. Who was talking then about global heating, the globalisation of finance capital, global value chains and the prolonged slowdown in productivity growth? Poulantzas developed his ideas at the end of the glorious phase of capitalism. The economic and political scope seemed incomparably greater than it is today. Yet, it was precisely the growth phase and the great acceleration after World War II that pushed world society to and beyond planetary ecological limits and finally thrust the Earth into the Anthropocene, whose gates had already been thrown open 100 years earlier. In view of the urgent need for a complete ecological transformation of the economy, Poulantzas’ argument at the time for subordination to capital interests seems rather grotesque today:

“Although transformation of the state economic apparatus seems necessary in order to prevent and counter such sabotage, it should be apparent that one is walking on a tight-rope. At no point should changes lead to actual dismantling of the economic apparatus: such a development would paralyse it and accordingly increase the chances of a boycott on the part of the bourgeoisie.”[1]

My point here is not a critique of Poulantzas, but of those rehashing his ideas today, even though the ecological, economic and social conditions are different from those of the 1970s. The idea of a gradual, linear social transformation, which is currently widespread in different left parties in Europe and among critical intellectuals, lacks a material basis. A return to a socially cushioned capitalism is impossible. This applies in all variants including left-conservative (Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany), left-populist (Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France and Podemos in Spain), and classical reformist (Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the leadership of DIE LINKE in Germany) projects as well as the intellectual discourses of a vague socio-ecological transformation.

A socio-ecological transformation, for example, in the form of a left Green New Deal, is economically inconsistent and must continue to accommodate the profit expectations of corporations, which continues to be based on an imperialist international division of labour and is far away from ecological requirements. I have explained this in a systematic critique of the different Green New Deal projects.[2]

Alongside these illusory reveries, radical leftists of different theoretical and political traditions persist in abstract notions of socialist revolution, in recalling the “lessons of the great October Revolution” or in equally abstract declarations for social change without conquering power. This theoretical sclerosis is drowned out in everyday politics because the reference to abstract creeds can easily be combined with petty and minimalist pragmatism and opportunism.

Many social movement activists and trade union members simply give the question of power a wide berth, delegating responsibility for change to existing governments. This flight from challenge is pernicious and contributes to the social weakness of anti-capitalist positions.

The urgency of a social and ecological transformation of the economy, social crises and continuing political disorientation demand that ecosocialists deal with the question of power. We need to open a debate on strategic hypotheses. I argue that the strategic hypothesis that relies on the development of dual power situations needs to be given new life. The orientation of critical intellectuals towards Poulantzas, who explicitly rejected the construction of counter-power that ripens into dual power, has not helped to enliven the necessary strategic debate.

A similar criticism applies to the advocates of radical reformism such as André Brie and Mario Candeias.[3] Using Rosa Luxemburg’s notion of “revolutionary realpolitik” from 1903, they outline a transformation perspective oriented towards the conquest of bastions in the state by a broad so-called mosaic left. Brie characterises markedly different experiences of the left in the last 100 years with “revolutionary realpolitik.” Finally, the bridge to the perspective of anti-capitalist rupture is missing. Rosa Luxemburg, however, used the term “revolutionary realpolitik” differently.[4] She linked the necessary structural reforms with the necessity of a revolutionary break with the state and explicitly focused on building counter-power structures. At the same time, she also gave the term “realpolitik” the questionable meaning of a “real” development in the sense of an objective “historical development trend”. Much later contrasting the alternative of socialism or barbarism, she overcame this deterministic understanding of history.[5]

Strategic hypothesis: from counter-power to dual power

David McNally recently argued for the relevance of the revolutionary strategy of rupture and dual power in an exciting article in the US journal Spectre. [6] The ecological constraints, which the author does not address, make his reflections even more explosive. Gareth Dale, Amanda Price Armstrong, Lucí Cavallero and Adam Hanieh took up the impulse and outlined their views on the contemporary meaning of revolution. [7]

Kai Heron and Jodi Dean have already previously argued for the option of an eco-communist revolution, also taking up Lenin’s understanding of a targeted and organised change in the political balance of power, for example in his uncompromising resistance to World War I.[8] Gus Woody offers a good overview of this incipient discussion, which needs to be developed transnationally combining many language areas.

It does matter which parties are in government. How governments are composed is an expression of the social balance of power. It is important that organisations with an ecosocialist programme are strongly represented in parliaments. However, participation in social-liberal and green-liberal modernisation governments would be the end of any claim to overcoming capitalist relations. It is a matter of fundamentally changing the social relations of forces so that measures can be implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero within a few years.

What is needed is a strategy aimed at building social counter-power. It is crucial that the climate movement, social movements and ecologically aware and militant trade unionists anchor themselves in society and build structures in neighbourhoods, educational institutions and workplaces. Workers in companies, people in residential areas and in education must become active in movements, gain experience and learn together.

Such structures of social counter-power take up the experiences of workers’ control that militant workers’ movements once made in special constellations. If such processes become generalised and the organs of counter-power gain comprehensive social legitimacy, situations of dual power can arise. Whether the forces of an ecosocialist transformation then succeed in asserting themselves depends on their organisation and the international balance of power.[9] A strategy of counter-power only makes sense in a perspective of dual power and ultimately its decisive fight.

However, it is impossible and nonsensical to fully model a scenario of the path to dual power and ultimately to power. While there are historical experiences of revolutionary processes from which we can continue to learn, there are no historical models for the present situation. The experiences of the Paris Commune in 1871, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the stifled German Revolutions in 1918 and 1923, the Spanish Revolution especially in Catalonia in 1936, the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the organisation of counter-power structures in France in 1968, the rudimentary revolutionary processes in Portugal in 1974, the incipient dual power in Poland in 1981 (to name just a few examples in Europe) show how different the constellations can be.

Many different scenarios are conceivable. Historical conditions and the dynamics of power relations differ from country to country. But the struggle over industrial conversion is taking place at the international level and the political power relations in individual countries are changing in an interwoven way.

Suppose, for example, that in an early industrialized and imperialist country supported by an enormous mobilization of workers in labour unions and social movements, a government pursuing a radical social-ecological reform program were elected. This would be a completely different government than the current PSOE-UnidosPodemos government in Spain or illusory projects such as an SPD-Green-Left coalition in Germany, a President Mélenchon in France, or even a President Sanders in the United States. Suppose this government introduced radical structural reforms based on an advantageous balance of power and the mobilization of working class and social movements. It would face the challenge – in contrast to the restraining recommendations of Poulantzas[10] – of decisively intervening in the production processes of key industries and handing over the corporations to the democratic control of society, which would already be a revolutionary act.

Whether such a government can sustain itself depends on the international constellation. For without open confrontation with the EU, a consistent socio-ecological reform policy could not be implemented. Confronted with capital flight and blackmail by the banks, such a government would have little room for manoeuvre. It would be forced to fiercely fight capital and its representatives. But this could soon lead to this government being faced with the alternative of either initiating a dynamic of rupture or submitting to the pressure of international capital.[11]

But other scenarios of emerging dual power are also conceivable. For example, democratically organized grassroots structures, as well as councils in enterprises and neighbourhoods, could enter in rivalry and opposition to a bourgeois, perhaps even authoritarian, government. These grassroots councils could face the challenge of defending themselves against repression and pf being crushed. Geographical dual power is also conceivable. For example, if self-governing structures are established in some regions of a country and faced with the challenge of enforcing and vigorously implementing socio-ecological transformation measures in the economy throughout the country and other countries.

Sectoral forms of dual power could arise when self-organized workers in some sectors of the economy take charge of industrial restructuring, but fossil path dependency has not yet been broken in other sectors. In addition, a historically new situation must be taken into account: in various countries, more or less simultaneously, regionally or sectorally limited dual power situations could emerge on the basis of massive mobilizations and extended processes of self-empowerment, which, however, are only partially able to challenge corporate and state power. This would give rise to the challenge of seeking the revolutionary decision at the continental or transnational level. In all these constellations, the international balance of power as well as mobilizations elsewhere in the world, not least in postcolonial countries, must be taken into account.

Building social counter-power is crucial

Regardless of the concrete counter-power-double-power dynamic, a break is only possible if workers and social movements have developed their own structures of social power (that is, their own council organs) to such an extent that these already enjoy greater social legitimacy than the state apparatus. One lesson of the previous approaches to workers’ control and council movements is that new structures of social power soon compete with the old state organs for recognition and enforcement power. The representatives of the old order have so far never voluntarily vacated their positions. If the new councils, self-governing and coordinating organs acquire an assertive power in society, a situation of dual power arises.

In such an unstable situation, councils’ organs might go one step further and finally implement the urgently needed socio-ecological structural reforms that go hand in hand with the social appropriation of important key industries, the energy sector and the financial sector. Such constellations can hardly exist in the long term. The new bodies thus face the challenge of asserting their power, ultimately enforcing it, and thus disempowering the old state and non-state entities. This includes the dissolution of armies, organs of repression and secret services.

Whatever government constellations emerge, a strategy aimed at building social counter-power is always necessary and decisive. It is essential that the climate movement, social movements and ecologically aware and militant trade unionists anchor themselves in society and build structures in neighbourhoods, educational institutions and workplaces. On this basis, the balance of power can be changed so that concrete conversion measures can be implemented.

The experiences of many movements show that rulers and state apparatuses try to weaken movements and alternative structures through intimidation and repression or even destroy them using open violence. There is no generally valid answer to the question of how movements can protect themselves against this as it depends strongly on concrete conditions and power relations. Violence can be avoided or minimised if democratic council structures build themselves up decisively and gain broad social legitimacy.[12]

A central question in these considerations is whether such a showdown can be initiated at the national level. Due to the close economic and social interdependencies in Europe with spatially and organisationally fragmented production and innovation systems, and the ecological urgency to push ahead the industrial conversion transnationally, this comprehensive trial of strength must be entered into predominantly at the transnational level. The conflicts have an international dynamic and power relations are also constituted at the international level. Due to the urgency of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions coordinated on a large-scale, that is transnationally, continentally and in global coordination, constellations are also conceivable in which the balance of power changes substantially in several countries at the same time. In general, ecosocialist forces are faced with the task of advancing their strategic projects together at least on a continental level.

But this would mean that the structures of workers’ control, broader social control and alternative councils while forming locally and regionally and uniting nationally, would at the same time coordinate themselves on a transnational level. It is a matter of acting at all scales to substantially shift the balance of power and engage in tests of strength to conquer political power. An ecosocialist upheaval in one or more countries must internationalise immediately to succeed when social struggles come to a head. Thus, ideas of a return to the traditional bureaucratic welfare state or a New Green Deal under the supposedly neutral mediation of the existing state do not convey a perspective capable of initiating a just and ecologically sustainable transition.

It remains to be worked out how elected councils and self-governing structures can take power through conscious and centralised action and to what extent this creates the conditions for breaking the power of capital as well as pushing back the bourgeois state and replacing it with new forms of statehood and social self-government organised in councils. What needs to be considered is how these new forms of power and administration are brought into a productive relationship with parliaments and referendums.

Ecosocialist organisations that can process historical experiences, learn from different movements around the world and function democratically can play a decisive role in processes of clarification. Democratically legitimised and generalised self-governing structures could then finally organise the conversion of ecological production and drive forward the practical reshaping of social relations, value concepts, modes of production and consumption styles. At the same time, they can change gender and nature relations in a process of comprehensive social emancipation. The urgently needed ecological conversion of production and reproduction as well as the implementation of the equally urgently needed redistribution of wealth demand the initiation of a revolutionary process.

The necessary conversion and dismantling of industries require planning. Only with social planning can this extensive process be organised in such a way that it is not accompanied by large-scale unemployment, the marginalisation of large sections of the population and extensive poverty. The social appropriation of strategic sectors of the economy also only makes sense in conjunction with democratic planning. For if socialised enterprises are not placed in competition with each other like private enterprises, there must be an allocation mechanism that points beyond the market. Planning should be combined with a process of negotiated coordination.[13]

By social planning, I mean an open process and a public debate about possible desired states and developments as well as the measures to be taken to achieve these goals. This process requires that workers and citizens work out alternative scenarios and options in democratically legitimised structures and confront them in social debates. They must actively shape and decide the processes themselves. These alternative options are to be determined through democratic decision-making. For this, however, appropriate council institutions are needed.[14] Parallel to the debate on transition strategies proposed here, there is also a need for a reassessment of different experiences with economic planning, including those in capitalist transnational corporations.[15]

In the next part 7 of this series, I propose a way of understanding the globally uneven and combined development of global heating and social resistance. At the same time, I summarise important facts and strategic proposals presented in previous articles of this series.

[1] Poulantzas 2002: 30; 1978: 198

[2] Zeller 2021a, 2021b

[3] Brie 2019; Candeias 2019

[4] Luxemburg 1903: 373

[5] Luxemburg 1916, compare also the illuminating remarks by Löwy (2020: 10-21) and the critique by Bierl (2020: 83-96) of the misleading use of the term “revolutionary Realpolitik”.

[6] McNally 2021

[7] Dale, et al. 2021

[8] Heron und Dean 2020

[9] See also my explanation in Revolution für das Klima. Warum wir eine ökosozialistische Alternative brauchen (Zeller 2020a: 201-202).

[10] Poulantzas 1978: 198

[11] Zeller 2020a: 201-202.

[12] vgl. Wallis 2018: 31

[13] Devine 2002

[14] Zeller 2020a: 210ff

[15] Zeller 2020b


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Brie, Michael (2019): Revolutionäre Realpolitik  I. Luxemburg. Gesellschaftsanalyse und linke Praxis. (Januar 2019). Zugriff 2. November 2019

Candeias, Mario (2019): Revolutionäre Realpolitik  II. Luxemburg. Gesellschaftsanalyse und linke Praxis. (Januar 2019). Zugriff 2. November 2019

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Heron, Kai und Dean, Jodi (2020): Revolution or Ruin. e-flux (110).

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Poulantzas, Nicos (1978): State, Power, Socialism. 2014. London: Verso.

Poulantzas, Nicos (2002): Staatstheorie - Politischer Überbau, Ideologie, Autoritärer Etatismus. Hamburg: VSA Verlag, 296 S. Originalpublikation: Erstausgabe VSA-Verlag 1978.

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Zeller, Christian (2020b): Den industriellen Um- und Rückbau planen. Wie lässt sich von kapitalistischer Planung lernen? Analyse & Kritik (664), 20. Oktober, S. 31.

Zeller, Christian (2021a): Green New Deal als Quadratur des Kreises. PROKLA. Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft 51 (1 (202)), S. 31-51

Zeller, Christian (2021b): Linker Green New Deal. Ökonomisch inkonsistent, ökologisch unangemessen. Die Internationale (2/2021).

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